Elders attended UAMS after joining the army and served as head of Arkansas’s department of Health and later became the first African American and only second woman to serve as U.S. Surgeon General.
Elders and nine others will be honored for their efforts toward equality in healthcare during a public ceremony to be held in the River Market District in Little Rock on Friday, October 24, 2014. Learn more at the 2014 Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail Commemoration.
Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders was born Minnie Lee Jones August 13, 1933. Her parents were farmers in the town of Schaal located in Howard County, Arkansas. In this rural, segregated portion of the state, the Elders and her siblings had to travel 13 miles to attend school. Elders often missed school to work in the cotton fields during harvest time but through hard work she earned a scholarship to attend Philander Smith College in Little Rock.
While in college, Elders changed her name to Joycelyn. She aspired to become a lab technician until she attended a lecture by Dr. Edith Irby Jones, the first black person to graduate from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, then the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. Jones lecture inspired her to pursue a career as a physician – a daunting aspiration since before meeting Jones, Elders was 16 years old when she met a doctor for the first time.
After graduating from Philander, Elders joined the U.S. Army and trained at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, before enrolling in the University of Arkansas Medical School in 1956 on the G.I. Bill. She graduated in 1960 and participated in an internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota.
She returned to Little Rock in 1961 and completed her residency at UAMS where she was later appointed chief pediatric resident, specializing in pediatric endocrinology. In fact, Elders was the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology.
She was appointed the head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987 by then Gov. Bill Clinton. She served in this position until 1992. During her tenure, Elders campaigned for clinics and expanded sex education. Those these measures were opposed by some conservative and religious groups because of these views, 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, Elders nearly doubled childhood immunizations, expanded the state’s prenatal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically or terminally ill.
In 1993, Elders was appointed the 16th Surgeon General of the United States by President Bill Clinton and was affirmed in September of 1993. She became the first African American and only the second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service. While in office she focused on tobacco-related diseases, AIDS, and alcohol and drug abuse, and continued to advocate for sex education programs. 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. In the book, she describes her journey of attending a segregated school to her college experiences, and challenges in her political career. Now retired from practice, she is a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine and continues to speak on issues regarding public health and education.
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