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Meet Child Health Champion Dr. Antonia Novello, America’s First Latina Surgeon General

NATIONAL HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH SPOTLIGHT

Dr. Antonia Coello Novello knows the challenges of child health firsthand. As a young girl growing up in the Puerto Rican coastal city of Farjardo, she suffered from a debilitating intestinal birth defect. Her family could not afford the surgery that offered the only cure, so Novello spent weeks at a time getting maintenance treatment at the local hospital in Farjardo. Long before she left for college and ultimately received the operations she needed, Novello had decided to become a doctor that could help other sick children – and ensure they didn’t have to wait 18 years for a surgery.

Novello earned her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico and completed her training in nephrology at the University of Michigan, where she was named intern of the year—the first female to ever win the honor. She began her career as a pediatrician but, over time, began to find her work with terminally ill children too difficult emotionally – she later told a writer, “When the pediatrician cries as much as the parents do, then you know it’s time to get out.”

Eager to continue her work on behalf of children, though, Novello took a clinical appointment in pediatrics at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and then joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in 1978, working at the National Institutes of Health. She soon became the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the NIH, where she focused on pediatric AIDS.

In 1990, Novello was named Surgeon General by President George H. W. Bush, not only the first person of Hispanic heritage to serve in the role, but also the first woman. As Surgeon General, she worked to focus the nation on the health of children, mothers, and traditionally marginalized racial groups. While perhaps best known for her relentless campaign against “Joe Camel” and other tobacco industry advertising aimed at children, Novello played a crucial role in building awareness of AIDS infections in women and children.

While perhaps best known for her relentless campaign against “Joe Camel” and other tobacco industry advertising aimed at children, Novello played a crucial role in building awareness of AIDS infections in women and children.

After her term as Surgeon General, she continued her passion for fighting for the health of all children. She joined UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s health organization, as Special Representative for Health and Nutrition. She served as a visiting professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, and from 1999 to 2006, she served as Commissioner of Health for the State of New York. Prior to her 2014 retirement, Novello was Vice President for Women’s and Children’s Health and Policy Affairs at Disney Children’s Hospital at Florida Hospital in Orlando.

As the early childhood policy advocacy community celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), we express our gratitude to Dr. Antonia Novello for her trailblazing child health policy work and the immeasurable impact she has had on the lives of our country’s children and their families.