Antonia Coello Novello : American Physician Who Changed The Face Of Medicine

Some people are born to create history, and Antonia Coello Novello was not an exception. She changed the face of medicine and made a remarkable difference in the American health system through his persistent efforts.

The journey that started during childhood with a resolution to become a doctor is still going strong.

Today, she is inspiring millions of girls in science to realize their dream and to serve their communities in myriads of ways. 

Early Childhood

Antonia Coello Novello was born in a poor family on August 23, 1944, in a seaside town Fajardo of Puerto Rico.

While she lost her father when she was a toddler, her mother stood as a pillar of strength and was a high school principal in a distant town.

Antonia was the eldest among three siblings and was studious from the beginning.

During her childhood, she suffered from a chronic health condition due to which her physical activity was limited, and she was required to undergo hospitalization for long periods.

Her prolonged illness encouraged her to start aspiring to become a doctor. It was when she turned 18 years old that she had her first surgery to cure the health problem.

There was also a second corrective surgery when she was 20 years old. 


Since the beginning, Antonia Coello Novello was encouraged by her mother to work hard in her studies, and she just did that.

At 15 years, she graduated from high school, and it was her academic performance that fetches her a scholarship to join the University of Puerto Rico.

After earning a B. S. Degree and an M.D Degree in 1965 and 1970 from the university, Antonia got married. She then moved to the state of Michigan with her husband.

She enrolled herself at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as a pediatric intern in 1970. Being the first woman to be chosen as the intern of the year in the university, there was no looking back!

She successfully completed her training in nephrology and then joined the Georgetown University Hospital to complete a fellowship from 1974–75.

She then joined the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1982 from where she earned a Masters in Public Health.Her quest for knowledge leads her to get a Doctorate of Public Health in 2000. 


Dr. Antonia Coello Novello had an extensive body of work. She started her professional life in 1978 when she joined the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) as a staff member.

Antonio made rapid progress through her sheer hard work and became the coordinator for AIDS research.

Later on, she becomes the Deputy Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1986.

The turning point of her life, however, comes in 1990 when she was appointed as the 14th Surgeon General of the U.S Public Health Service.

She created history as this appointment not only make her the first woman to hold that office but also the first Hispanic ever to have that prestigious position. 

After serving in the office successfully, she becomes a special representative to UN Children’s Fund and consistently tried to address the grave issue of highlighting the health and nutritional needs of women, children, as well as adolescents on a global scale.

Next, she joined the Johns Hopkins School of Health and Hygiene as a visiting professor in 1996, where she worked till 1999. 

Meanwhile, she achieves an unprecedented feat in 1998 by successfully organizing a meeting between the then Surgeon General David Satcher and other former surgeon generals on the 15th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1999, she was nominated as the Commissioner of health by the then Governor George Pataki, and she becomes the 13th New York State Health Commissioner.


Although the notable American physician won many accolades in her illustrious career, some of the notable ones are as follows: 

1984- Legion of Merit 

2002- The James Smithson Bicentennial Medal 

2005- National Governor’s Association Distinguished Service to State Government Award 

2011- Don Quijote Lifetime Achievement Award

2013-Girl Scouts of Citrus Lifetime Achievement Award

Dr. Antonia Coello Novello had also made an immense contribution in paving the way for issuing health warning labels on cigarette packs, AIDS awareness, improving medicare, and organ transplants.

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