Antonia Novello: 1944—: Pediatrician
Childhood Illness Led To Medical Career
Antonia Novello was born on August 23, 1944 in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, a town 32 miles southeast of San Juan. She was the oldest of three children. When she was eight years old, Novello's father, Antonio Coello, died. Novello and her siblings were primarily raised by her mother, Ana Delia Coello, a schoolteacher and later a junior high school and high school principal, who later remarried. At birth Novello was diagnosed with congenital megacolon, an abnormality of the large intestine. This was a painful condition that plagued Novello throughout her childhood and required frequent trips to the hospital. Novello was told that she should have surgery to correct this problem when she was eight years old; however, it was ten more years before that would happen. As Novello explained to the Saturday Evening Post, "I do believe some people fall through the cracks. I was one of those. I thought, when I grow up, no other person is going to wait 18 years for surgery."
Despite her medical problems, Novello excelled academically. She was a well-adjusted child who had a good sense of humor and who was very active in school activities. Her mother stressed the importance of an education and personally taught her math and science. "I went through a system of care that was not very keen, in a diseased state that makes you realize that there are good people and bad people in medicine, with a mother who said, 'I'm not going to let your disease be used for you not to succeed.' All those three prepared me for the job that God eventually made me have," Novello told the Hall of Public Service in an interview on June 18, 1994.
Novello graduated from high school at age 15 and then went to study at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Pedras. When she was 18 years old she finally had surgery to correct her medical condition. However, the initial surgery was not successful and Novello continued to suffer from complications for two more years. When she was 20 years old Novello traveled to the renowned Mayo Clinic for another operation that finally corrected the problem.
Novello graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science degree. She then went on to study medicine at the same university, graduating in 1970. That same year she married Joseph Novello, a navy flight surgeon who later became a psychiatrist and a radio talk show host. The young couple moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan so that Novello could begin a pediatrics internship at the University of Michigan Medical Center. A year later Novello became the first woman to receive the University of Michigan Pediatrics Department Intern of the Year Award.
Novello stayed in Michigan until 1973 and then moved to Washington, D.C. to begin her residency at Georgetown University Hospital. Novello became interested in studying the kidneys after her favorite aunt had died from kidney failure and Novello herself was hospitalized with kidney problems. She then decided to specialize in pediatric nephrology at Georgetown. When her fellowship ended in 1976 Novello went into private practice in Springfield, Virginia. However, she soon realized that she was too emotionally involved with her patients so she left her practice. As she explained to People magazine in December of 1990, "When the pediatrician cries as much as the parents do, then you know it's time to get out."
In 1978 Novello thought about joining the United States Navy. However, a male recruiter discouraged her because of her gender. A year later she decided to join the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps instead. This is a branch of the United States Uniformed Services dedicated to providing highly trained health care professionals to deliver health services across the country. Her first assignment was as a project officer for the Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Disease at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later she was promoted to a staff physician at NIH. From 1981 to 1986 Novello worked as the executive secretary for the Division of Research Grants. During this time she continued her education, graduating in 1982 with a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University. From 1982 to 1983 Novello also served as a Congressional Fellow for the Labor and Human Resources Committee chaired by Senator Orrin Hatch. In this position she worked on the National Transplant Act of 1984 and also helped draft the labels on cigarette packages to warn smokers of the health dangers of smoking.
In 1986 Novello was promoted again as deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a position that fully utilized her pediatrics training. During her four years in this position Novello was a strong advocate for AIDS research. She was passionate about her work and felt she had reached the height of her career at NIH. However, in 1990 she was asked to fill the most prestigious position in public health, United States Surgeon General.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerAntonia Novello: 1944—: Pediatrician Biography - Childhood Illness Led To Medical Career, Became Nation's Leading Doctor, Fought For America's Health