Joycelyn Elders, the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, was the fifteenth Surgeon General of the United States, the first African American and only the second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service. Long an outspoken advocate of public health, Elders was appointed Surgeon General by President Clinton in 1993.
Born to poor farming parents in 1933, Joycelyn Elders grew up in a rural, segregated, poverty-stricken pocket of Arkansas. She was the eldest of eight children, and she and her siblings had to combine work in the cotton fields from age 5 with their education at a segregated school thirteen miles from home. They often missed school during harvest time, September to December.
After graduating from high school, she earned a scholarship to the all-black liberal arts Philander Smith College in Little Rock. While she scrubbed floors to pay for her tuition, her brothers and sisters picked extra cotton and did chores for neighbors to earn her $3.43 bus fare. In college, she enjoyed biology and chemistry, but thought that lab technician was likely her highest calling. Her ambitions changed when she heard Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, speak at a college sorority. Elders—who had not even met a doctor until she was 16 years old—decided that becoming a physician was possible, and she wanted to be like Jones.
After college, Elders joined the Army and trained in physical therapy at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. After discharge in 1956 she enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School on the G.I. Bill. Although the Supreme Court had declared separate but equal education unconstitutional two years earlier, Elders was still required to use a separate dining room—where the cleaning staff ate. She met her husband, Oliver Elders, while performing physical exams for the high school basketball team he managed, and they were married in 1960.
Elders did an internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, and in 1961 returned to the University of Arkansas for her residency. Elders became chief resident in charge of the all-white, all-male residents and interns. She earned her master's degree in biochemistry in 1967, became an assistant professor of pediatrics at the university's Medical School in 1971, and full professor in 1976.
Over the next twenty years, Elders combined her clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology, publishing well over a hundred papers, most dealing with problems of growth and juvenile diabetes. This work led her to study of sexual behavior and her advocacy on behalf of adolescents. She saw that young women with diabetes face health risks if they become pregnant too young—include spontaneous abortion and possible congenital abnormalities in the infant. She helped her patients to control their fertility and advised them on the safest time to start a family.
Governor Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987. As she campaigned for clinics and expanded sex education, she caused a storm of controversy among conservatives and some religious groups. Yet, largely because of her lobbying, in 1989 the Arkansas Legislature mandated a K-12 curriculum that included sex education, substance-abuse prevention, and programs to promote self-esteem. From 1987 to 1992, she nearly doubled childhood immunizations, expanded the state's prenatal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically or terminally ill.
In 1993, President Clinton appointed Dr. Elders U.S. Surgeon General. Despite opposition from conservative critics, she was confirmed and sworn in on September 10, 1993. During her fifteen months in office she faced skepticism regarding her progressive policies yet continued to bring controversial issues up for debate. As she later concluded, change can only come about when the Surgeon General can get people to listen and talk about difficult subjects.
Dr. Elders left office in 1994 and in 1995 she returned to the University of Arkansas as a faculty researcher and professor of pediatric endocrinology at the Arkansas Children's Hospital. In 1996 she wrote her autobiography, Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America.
Now retired from practice, she is a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, and remains active in public health education.