Joycelyn Elders, MD, 15th US Surgeon General
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
College of Medicine
M. Joycelyn Elders, MD, was a pediatrician from Little Rock, AR, who became the nation’s physician. While Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he appointed Elders as state health director. She improved the health of people of Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the nation. As a pediatrician she watched many teenaged girls get pregnant and suffer the consequences for themselves and their children. Her bold reaction to the issue of teen pregnancy was to advocate for in-school clinics that included contraceptives services. When Clinton was elected President, he asked Elders to do for the nation what she had done for the people of Arkansas. As Surgeon General, Elders argued the case for universal health coverage and was a spokesperson for President Clinton's health care reform effort. She has been a strong advocate for comprehensive health education in schools, including sexuality education.
Elders, a native of Schaal, AR, is the eldest of eight children. She is a great-granddaughter of slaves and was raised by her sharecropping parents in a three-room shack with no electricity or plumbing. Until she entered college, she had not seen a doctor. At the age of 15 she received a scholarship from the United Methodist Church to attend Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR. Upon graduation at age 18, she entered the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant and received training as a physical therapist. Through the support of her community and the GI Bill, she went to medical school at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine (UAMS) and was the only black woman in her class. She excelled and decided to enter the field of pediatrics.
In 1960 Elders was chosen for the highly competitive internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. After completion she returned to Arkansas for a pediatric residency and an endocrinology fellowship at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock. Elders ascended the academic ladder to full professorship after her fellowship and board certification in 1976. She also holds a master of science degree in biochemistry. Elders joined the faculty at UAMS as a professor of pediatrics and received board certification as a pediatric endocrinologist in 1978. Based on her studies of growth in children and the treatment of hormone-related illnesses, she has written many articles for medical research publications.
Elders was appointed director of the Arkansas Department of Health in October of 1987. While serving as director, she was elected president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.
Elders was nominated as Surgeon General of the US Public Health Service by President Clinton on July 1, 1993, confirmed by the Senate September 7, and sworn in on September 8. Elders served in this post until January 1995, following which she returned to the University of Arkansas Children’s Hospital until her retirement on June 30, 1998. She is now a professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at UAMS.
Since leaving her post as Surgeon General, Elders has remained a prominent figure in the public discourse around human sexuality and has been a champion for comprehensive sexuality education, reproductive rights, and sexual rights. Elders has returned to the University of Minnesota as an active member of the Program in Human Sexuality’s Leadership Council. She also serves on the Trojan Sexual Health Advisory Council and the African American Health Alliance. Elders is a former board member of the Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma. She has also been active in civic affairs as a member of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, Northside YMCA, and Youth Homes. She was listed in 100 Outstanding Women in Arkansas, Personalities of the South, and Distinguished Women in America. She has won awards such as the Arkansas Democrat’s Woman of the Year, the National Governor’s Association Distinguished Service Award, the American Medical Association’s Dr. Nathan Davis Award, the De Lee Humanitarian Award, and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Candace Award for Health Science. Elders has also received multiple honorary doctorate of medicine degrees and honorary doctorate of letters degrees, including an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1993.
Elders says her greatest achievement is that she married Oliver Elders and they have two sons, Eric and Kevin.
For more information about the life and work of Joycelyn Elders, MD, visit Arkansas Public Television: Men & Women of Distinction - Joycelyn Elders