First woman and first Hispanic surgeon general shares history-making moments

During her terms as the 14th U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Health Commissioner, Dr. Antonia Novello oversaw major moments of public health history, from the nation’s handling of the AIDS crisis to the aftermath of 9/11. As the nation’s first woman and first Hispanic surgeon general, Novello also made history herself. 

Novello recently spoke to the Regis community, sharing insights from her career dedicated to public service. The event, hosted in the St. John Francis Regis Chapel, also served as the official launch of her new book, Duty Calls: Lessons Learned from an Unexpected Life of Service.

Novello, who served as the 14th surgeon general from 1990-1993, was nominated to the position by President George H.W. Bush. As she shared during the discussion, her rise to the highest levels of public health service — and breaking down barriers in the process — was accompanied by a great deal of challenge.

“It puts quite a responsibility on you when you're the only woman, because all of a sudden, becoming a role model becomes your reality, whether you want to be or not. And I was not about to do anything that was going to hurt the Hispanic race, ever,” she said. Novello also said she never wanted other women to be blocked from leadership positions because of her, which added more pressure to excel.

Novello ultimately lived up to the challenge of being the first, continuing to lead in different roles. From 1999 until 2006, she served as the Commissioner of Health for the State of New York, serving the state following 9/11. And after her many years of service, she learned that she is the most decorated professional in the U.S. Public Health Service. 

The discussion on the Northwest Denver Campus, moderated by Regis Trustee Nita Gonzales, also featured insights from Jill Tietjen, who co-authored the book with Novello. The duo met in 1994, when Novello was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Tietjen, a trailblazer in her own right, built a successful career as an engineer. In 1972, she joined the third class of women permitted to enroll as undergraduates at the University of Virginia. Another leader who was often the only woman in the room, Tietjen became interested in telling the stories of women who reached the highest positions in their fields. For her work, Tietjen was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010. 

The event was hosted by the Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence. Novello’s book is now available. Learn more.