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Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders: Champion for Medical Equality

6 min read

It’s only 120 miles from Schaal, Arkansas, to Little Rock; but it was a journey that would take Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders from the cotton fields to the halls of power and back. And as they say of all such journeys, the most difficult part is often the first step.

Born Minnie Lee Jones to sharecropper parents as the eldest of eight siblings, Elders was a bright, ambitious young woman who earned a scholarship from the United Methodist Women at age 15 to attend Philander Smith College. But there was a problem: The family didn’t have the $3.43 in bus fare it would take to get her to Little Rock.

“I remember my sisters and brothers going out and picking cotton for me to do what I had to do and get bus fare,” she told The Visionary Project in a 2010 video. “I’ll never forget my young brother; we’d picked all day and it was near sundown and he … looked up at me and he said, ‘Do we have enough yet?’

“That probably stuck with me more than anything ever; I thought if I ever get through this and if I ever make it so that they can get out, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I do.”

Her years at Philander Smith College were ones of profound self-discovery. She changed her name to Minnie Joycelyn Lee (later to use just Joycelyn) and discovered a talent for biology and chemistry, which originally put her on pace to become a lab technician. But after attending a lecture by Edith Irby Jones, the first African-American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, she was inspired to become a doctor instead.

Receiving her B.A. in biology in 1952, Elders worked shortly as a nurse’s aide in a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee then joined the Army in May, 1953. During her three-year hitch, she trained as a physical therapist at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. After her discharge in 1956, she enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock on the GI Bill.

Of the three women in her class one transferred and completed her degree at another school and the other became ill, dropped out and returned later.

“So I was the only one to graduate in my class,” Elders told the Visionary Project.

She was also one of just three black students in her class. In an era when racial issues were prominent in the city — headlined by the events surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957 — the vestiges of institutional and societal discrimination weren’t hard to find.

“When I started medical school, the blacks and whites had separate dining rooms,” Elders said. “Black medical students had to eat with the housekeeping and maintenance; we could not eat with the nurses and doctors. After a while they decided that the black medical students should be allowed to eat in the main dining room.”

Earning her medical degree in 1960, she completed an internship at the University of Minnesota Hospital and a residency in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center where she 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 a full professor in 1976.

Over the decades to come, Elders practiced medicine and devoted considerable time to research in pediatric endocrinology, publishing well over a hundred papers. In particular, her work addressed issues of growth and juvenile diabetes and later, studied sexual development among adolescents.

Gov. Bill Clinton appointed her head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987. At that time, 20 percent of Arkansas’s total births were to teenage mothers, 7 percent higher than the national average. Besides the huge burden this created for Arkansas’ welfare system, Elders was concerned with the health and social impacts that came with so many emotionally immature young adults becoming parents to unwanted children.

“You wonder why we’re poor [as a state],” she said. “The most common cause of poverty is children becoming parents before they become adults. I thought, we’ve got to prevent our children from having children, whatever we need to do.

“I didn’t realize all the problems I was going to get into. But at that point, I didn’t care. To me, we had to educate our young people so they could make good decisions. They can’t make good decisions if they don’t know how.”

Elders’ crusade resulted in state-mandated, K-12 curriculum that included school-based sex education, substance-abuse prevention and programs to promote self-esteem. She also expanded childhood immunizations through Arkansas’ prenatal care program and increased home-care options for the chronically or terminally ill.

The number of her achievements was rivaled only by the storm of controversy such measures unleashed at every turn. So when President Clinton approached her to become U.S. Surgeon General, she had a message for the homegrown Commander in Chief.

“I reminded [Clinton] … I said ‘When you asked me to be your health director, you didn’t know what you were getting,’ ” she said. “ ‘But Mr. President; you know what you’re getting now.’ ”

Elders had serious reservations about going to Washington, fond as she was of the job she had directing the Arkansas Department of Health. She also was not about to back down from her rhetoric on reproductive issues and knew the scorn of conservatives would only intensify on the national stage.

In fact, the withering criticism started with the very confirmation process that would ultimately install her as the first African-American and second woman to hold the post.

“I went to Washington thinking I was prime steak,” she said of the political atmosphere, “but by the time they got through with me, I thought I was low-grade hamburger.”

True to her word, Elders was fearless on sensitive subjects and her straight-talking style was immediately a lightning rod for critics of the administration. As a result, her tenure as Surgeon General lasted only 15 months, but she left Washington unbowed, having demonstrated the courage to raise controversial issues and encourage dialogue and change on difficult subjects.

“I went to Washington, not to get that job but to do that job,” Elders told CNN in 2005. “I wanted to do something about the problems that I saw out there that were happening in our country. I wanted to do something to make sure that all people had access to healthcare. I wanted to do something to reduce teenage pregnancies and begin to address the needs of our adolescents.”

After leaving Washington in 1994, she returned to Arkansas the following year 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.

During her career, she received numerous awards and honors including National Institutes of Health career development award and past president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers. Now retired from practice, she is a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine and remains active in public health education.

“If I had to do it all over again today, I would do it the same way,” Elders told CNN. “I felt I did it right the first time.”

Discover more about the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame Class of 2016.

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