Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders

Joycelyn Elders was born a tenant farmer’s daughter in rural Arkansas. At age five, she worked in the cotton fields while attending a segregated school thirteen miles from home. During harvest time, from September to December, she often missed school. She did well enough, though, to earn a scholarship to the all-black, liberal arts Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Making it through college was a family affair. Joycelyn Elders cleaned floors, while her brothers and sisters did extra work in the fields and chores for neighbors to help earn her bus fare. In college, she worked hard and especially enjoyed biology and chemistry. She hoped to become a lab technician. Her ambitions dramatically changed when she heard a talk by Dr. Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School. Though Elders had never even met a doctor until she was sixteen years old, she decided it was possible to become a physician, like Dr. Jones. In 1956, like her role model, she enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School. Two years before, the Supreme Court had declared “separate but equal” education unconstitutional. Despite that ruling, Elders was prohibited from sharing dining facilities with the other students on campus. In spite of the inauspicious circumstances early in her life, Dr. Elders was appointed Surgeon General of the United States by President Bill Clinton in 1993. In this prominent post, Dr. Elders continued to promote the issues she had been committed to in her previous work as head of the Arkansas Department of Health, where she had been especially concerned with the health of young people and campaigned for the introduction of a range of innovative educational programs to the school curriculum. Within five years, she nearly doubled childhood immunizations in Arkansas, expanded the state’s pre-natal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically and terminally ill. As Surgeon General, Dr. Elders concluded it was her responsibility to get people to listen and talk about difficult subjects, since only then can change come about. She again concentrated on the health of young people and led the national debate on the prevention of substance abuse, and sex education for teenagers. Some considered her focus on these issues controversial, and she left office after 15 months. She returned to the University of Arkansas as a faculty researcher and was appointed professor at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Now retired from practice, Dr. Elders is a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine and remains active in public health education.