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Hispanic Heritage Month: Dr. Antonia Novello

Antonia Coello was primed for a life in medicine when illness and healthcare played an intimate role in the shaping of a young girl’s world. Born on August 23, 1944, Coello started out her life in Fajardo, Puerto Rico in underprivileged conditions that only became tougher when her father died in her fourth year of life. Being in education, her mother was often absent and as a result, young Antonia was isolated. However, her standing in academics was strong and would later become a benefit to her.

Her childhood was filled with discomfort and health issues, as she was diagnosed with a chronic condition in her colon, when she was young,  that would plague her with pain until she could finally have the issue corrected through a surgical procedure when she was eighteen. Due to the problematic extent of Antonia’s complications, the young girl spent a considerable amount of time away from regular childhood settings and activities to receive treatment.

The aspiring doctor was shaped by her medical history and through 1970 pursued her own path to practicing medicine. First earning her undergraduate and then her medical degree at the University of Puerto Rico. Being in medicine also, Joseph Novello, with whom Antonia would soon share a name, was working as a surgeon in the navy. The two would cross paths and wed. The now Dr. Antonia Novello, left her homeland and traveled to mainland America. Here she continued her studies and necessary apprenticeships at the University of Michigan Medical Center, followed by her supportive husband. She would make her rounds through Georgetown University Hospital and Johns Hopkins earning greater experience as both a doctor and as a student, as she also earned an additional masters degree along the way. Novello’s area of expertise during her work in the hospital setting was Nephrology. Nephrology is an umbrella term that concerns the study and treatment of different diseases and chronic conditions related to the Kidneys. This niche interest can be attributed to the relationship Novello had with a close aunt while she was at the University of Puerto Rico. Her aunt ultimately died of Kidney failure and Novello’s interests were cemented.

Novello spent time after her apprenticeship at Johns Hopkins treating children suffering from kidney disease, but due to its incredibly taxing nature, the determined doctor turned away from direct medical care. She chose to focus on the public sector to affect lives positively for as many people as possible.

You know those warning labels that stand clear as day on tobacco products in the United States? Well, Dr. Novello is responsible for gaining that implementation through legislation. Also within a few years of turning to focus on public healthcare she pioneered the development of a system for matching organs from a donor to a recipient, which until such time struggled to remain organized. She worked with The National Institute of Health through the end of the ’80s and even addressed the AIDS crisis during that time through her care and research within government health. 

In 1990, the fruits of her hard labor were ripe and caught the attention of the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush. Her role in legislation and public healthcare was rewarded with the position of Surgeon General of the United States, making Novello the premier decision maker for healthcare on behalf of the American people. As surgeon general, the esteemed doctor attacked issues away from large medical bodies and powers in American medicine and paid attention to what the average American needed. Her ambitions were getting medical access and freedoms to those impacted by poor medical policy, largely women and other minorities. She campaigned and conquered the playing field against industries that harmed the health of the average citizen and defeated bodies attempting to manipulate children and vulnerable populations. Antonia Novello went above and beyond for the American people whilst representing herself and her community as the first hispanic individual and female to be appointed to the position of Surgeon General after fourteen predecessors. Healthcare goes beyond illness, and Novello set out to disrupt the pervasive and nuanced crisis of violence in relationships between or from one partner to another.

Upon the end of her time in office, Dr. Antonia Novello took a step back to largely oversee policy and work with international institutions for better healthcare implementation at smaller governing levels. Her work with the government would not fade, and today, rather than pursuing a quiet retirement, Novello still attacks contemporary issues with vigor, most recently to address the Covid-19 Pandemic in an effort to expand the impact of vaccinations for Americans. 

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Antonia Novello, our information was sourced from Covid Collaborative, National Women’s History Museum, Changing the Face of Medicine, and Britannica.