Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. surgeon general
Dr. Joycelyn Elders, U.S. surgeon general under President Clinton and the first African American to hold the position, was born in 1933 to a poor farm family in Arkansas. Family, friends and neighbors all helped her scrape together money and supplies for her time as a student at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology at the age of 18. After working for a time as a nurse’s aide in Milwaukee, she joined the Army in May 1953, where she was trained as a physical therapist. She earned her medical degree from the University of Arkansas Medical School in 1960.
Her research interests focused on endocrinology, and she received certification as a pediatric endocrinologist in 1978. As head of the Arkansas Department of Health, she successfully lobbied for sex education in public schools, nearly doubled childhood immunizations, expanded the state’s prenatal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically or terminally ill.
As U.S. surgeon general, she was a strong advocate for comprehensive health education, including sex education, in schools. 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.
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Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the first African American, and the second woman, to hold the position of surgeon general of the United States, discusses her childhood in Arkansas and her extended family, as well as what inspired her to go into medicine.