Women Who Inspire Us: Antonia Novello, M.D.

Portrait of Antonia Novello

Antonia Novello, M.D., was both the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as U.S. Surgeon General. When she left her post in 1993, she was praised by President Bill Clinton for her "vigor and talent." 

At birth, Dr. Novello was diagnosed with congenital megacolon. Her family was told that she should have surgery to correct the problem around age eight, but when her father died she fell through the cracks, experiencing terrible pain throughout her childhood. At age 18 she finally got the surgery, and promised herself that she'd help make sure no one else had to wait so long. 

She studied at the University of Puerto Rico and Johns Hopkins University, then became a pediatric nephrologist. She soon discovered that the emotional toll of direct patient care wasn't for her. "When the pediatrician cries as much as the parents do, then you know it's time to get out," she once said. 

Dr. Novello joined the U.S. Public Health Service in 1979 and held various roles at the National Institutes of Health throughout the 1980s, including as the coordinator for AIDS research. Her work on pediatric AIDS caught the attention of the White House. President George H.W. Bush appointed her surgeon general in 1990. 

Her focus as Surgeon General was on the health of women, children and minorities. She worked on campaigns to tackle underage drinking and smoking, as well as AIDS. She helped launch early childhood health initiatives, and promoted immunization and childhood injury prevention. 

Dr. Novello inspires us because she brought empathy and experience to her work, using her powerful position to support the health of women and children.