Antonia Coello Novello (born August 23, 1944) is a Puerto Rican physician and public health administrator. She was a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and served as fourteenth Surgeon General of the United States from 1990 to 1993. Novello is the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as Surgeon General.
Novello served Commissioner of Health for the State of New York from 1999 to 2006. Novello was charged in a 20 count indictment on May 12, 2009 in New York with theft of government services, defrauding the government and filing a false instrument. On June 26, 2009, in a plea deal with prosecutors, she pleaded guilty to one charge of filing a false document involving a worker’s duties.
Novello was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. She was born with an abnormality of the colon that posed a challenge throughout her childhood and adolescence. She was not treated until age 18, when she received an operation that resulted in complications which would trouble Novello for two more years. The problems were resolved after she received treatment at the Mayo Clinic at age 20.
Novello graduated from high school at age 15, received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras in 1965, and earned her Doctor in Medicine (MD) Degree from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine at San Juan in 1970. She then completed her internship and residency in nephrology at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Novello remained at Michigan from 1973 to 1974 on a fellowship in the Department of Internal Medicine, and spent the following year on a fellowship in the Department of Pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine. From 1976 to 1978, she was in private practice in pediatrics in Springfield, Virginia.
In 1979, Novello joined the Public Health Service and received a commission in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC). Her first assignment was as a project officer at the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). From 1976, she also held a clinical appointment in pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital. During her years at NIH, Novello worked on an MPH. degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, receiving the degree in 1982.
Novello held various positions at NIH before being appointed to Assistant Surgeon General grade in the PHSCC and assignment as the Deputy Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in 1986. She also served as Coordinator for AIDS Research for NICHD from September 1987. In this role, she developed a particular interest in pediatric AIDS, which caught the attention of the White House.
Novello made major contributions to the drafting and enactment of the Organ Transplantation Procurement Act of 1984 while assigned to the United States Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, working with the staff of committee chairman Orrin Hatch.
Novello was appointed Surgeon General by President George H.W. Bush, beginning her tenure on March 9, 1990 and was appointed to the temporary rank of vice admiral in the regular corps while the Surgeon General. She was the first woman and the first Hispanic to hold the position.
During her tenure as Surgeon General, Novello focused her attention on the health of women, children and minorities, as well as on underage drinking, smoking, and AIDS. She played an important role in launching the Healthy Children Ready to Learn Initiative. She was actively involved in working with other organizations to promote immunization of children and childhood injury prevention efforts. She spoke out often and forcefully about illegal underage drinking, and called upon the United States Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General to issue a series of eight reports on the subject.
Novello also worked to discourage illegal tobacco use by young people, and repeatedly criticized the tobacco industry for appealing to the youth market through the use of cartoon characters such as Joe Camel. A workshop that she convened led to the emergence of a National Hispanic/Latino Health Initiative.
Novello was controversial among abortion rights advocates due to her support of a policy prohibiting family planning program workers who received federal financing from discussing abortion with their patients.
Novello left the post of Surgeon General on June 30, 1993, with the administration of President Bill Clinton praising her for her “vigor and talent.”
After leaving the position of Surgeon General, Novello remained in the regular corps of the Public Health Service. She was assigned the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Special Representative for Health and Nutrition from 1993 to 1996 reverting back to her permanent two-star rank of rear admiral. In 1996, she became Visiting Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She retired from the Public Health Service and the PHSCC shortly after with the grade of vice admiral.
In 1999, Governor of New York George Pataki appointed Novello as the Commissioner of Health for the State of New York. She served until 2006. Since 2008, Novello has been vice president of Women and Children Health and Policy Affairs at Disney Children’s Hospital at Florida Hospital in Orlando, Florida.
Novello was married to former US Navy flight surgeon and psychiatrist, Joseph R. Novello. She was the sister-in-law of Saturday Night Live alumnus Don Novello, creator of the character persona Father Guido Sarducci.
A January 2009 report by the New York Inspector General’s office claimed that during her seven-year tenure as New York State Health Commissioner, Novello routinely abused her authority over health department staff, “turn[ing] her staff at the Health Department into her personal chauffeurs, porters and shopping assistants during her seven-year tenure.”
The Inspector General’s office referred a criminal case against her to Albany County district attorney David Soares. On May 12, 2009 a felony indictment was unsealed charging one count of defrauding the government, three counts of filing a false instrument and sixteen counts of theft of government services. Upon arraignment by Judge Stephen Herrick, represented by attorney E. Stewart Jones, she at first pleaded “Not Guilty” to all allegations, but eventually pleaded guilty to one felony count of filing a false instrument in exchange for a light sentence and dropping the other charges. Her guilty plea was accepted by the court on August 13, 2009.