Joycelyn Elders Biography (1933-)

physician (pediatric endocrinologist); former U.S. Surgeon General

Joycelyn Elders held the position of U.S. Surgeon General from 1993 through 1994, when she was forced to resign amidst intense controversy.

Joycelyn Elders was born Minnie Lee Jones on August 13, 1933, the oldest of her parents' eight children. As was the case for many poor black families of the time, Elders was born at home in Schaal, Arkansas. Her parents were sharecroppers, who picked cotton. Her father also supported the family by killing raccoons. This supplied the family with a source of food, as well as bringingin a little money when he could sell the pelts to Sears. Elders's family homewas a three-room cabin that lacked indoor plumbing and electricity.

Elders showed her intelligence early on, as her mother taught her to read byage four. By age five, Elders was picking cotton in the fields in the early morning, and then walking five miles to catch a schoolbus. The bus then drove13 miles away to the black school, a dingy building supplied with the cast-off textbooks of white schools.

Elders had no exposure to medical care as a child. Childbirth (her mother hadeight children) was accomplished at home. Elders'ss brother once suffered aruptured appendix, and was transported into town for medical care on a mule.

Elders's parents and brothers and sisters worked extra hard in the cotton fields to support Elders attendance at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. She started college at only fifteen, working as a maid scrubbing floors to help put herself through. Amazingly, Elders was still able to graduatein only three years. It was during her years in college that she first saw adoctor. She also heard Edith Irby Jones speak. Jones was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Arkansas Medical School. Until this point, Elders had thought she'd become a laboratory technician. After hearing Jones speak, Elders became determined to become a physician.

First, however, Elders served in the Army as a physical therapist. The G.I. bill, then, financed her attendance at University of Arkansas Medical School.Elders faced challenges, both as the only woman in the class of 1960, and asan African-American at a school with segregated dining halls and social clubs.

After graduation, Elders did her internship year at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis, returning to train in pediatrics at Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock. Elders was appointed chief of the pediatric residency in 1963, and continued her training with a research fellowship in 1964. In 1967, Elders earned an M.S. in biochemistry, and accepted a position at University of Arkansas Medical School as an assistant professor. By 1976, she was full professor; by 1978 she became a board certified pediatric endocrinologist. Elders name is on about 147 published research papers.

In 1987, Elders was appointed by Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to the position of Arkansas's chief public health director. Elders was thrilled at the opportunity to have an impact on such issues as teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and children's health. Under her administration, early childhood screening increased by ten times; the immunization rate by 2 years of age increasedfrom 34 to 64%; and the number of women receiving prenatal care from the state increased by 17% (thereby also concomitantly decreasing the infant mortality rate). Elders also focused efforts on improving statewide HIV testing and counseling services, improving home health care for the severely chronically and terminally ill, and increasing mammogram rates among low-income women.

Elders was attacked by conservative groups in Arkansas for her policy of creating school-based clinics. Her intention had been that these clinics would provide health care, education, and contraceptives (in particular, condoms) tohigh school students throughout Arkansas. Yet only four of these clinics everactually handed out condoms. Conservative Christian and right-to-life groupsclaimed that Elders was pushing abortions. While Elders was forthright abouther pro-choice stance, she tried repeatedly to explain that her real goal was simple prevention of pregnancy. Still, she was vilified by conservatives, and her efforts sometimes thwarted by their interference.

In 1993, after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president of the United States, he chose Elders as his Surgeon General. After grueling confirmation hearings, in which Elders's opponents attempted to derail her appointment, Elders was finally confirmed. Surgeon General of the U.S. is both an administrative position (serving as head of the Public Health Service Corps' six thousand doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and scientists) and an educational position. The Surgeon General is expected to choose particular public health problems, and tobring them to the attention of the American public. Elders was excellent atthis role, speaking out in her inimitably honest fashion on such topics as teen pregnancy, tobacco use, AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, gun control, and legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Yet her detractors were many, and she was constantly under barrage for her forthright opinions.

In 1994, Elders spoke at the United Nations' World AIDS Day. A psychologist in the audience proposed a question to her, asking if she thought that masturbation could serve as a useful tool to help discourage school children from becoming sexually active too early. Elders responded by saying: "With regard tomasturbation, I think that is something that is part of human sexuality anda part of something that perhaps should be taught." Her conservative opponents jumped with both feet on the issue, and her words were twisted and splashedacross the media, making it sound as if Elders had advocated teaching masturbation techniques to grade schoolers. In the wake of the controversy, Elderswas forced to resign from her post as Surgeon General.

Since her resignation, Elders returned to the University of Arkansas, where she has continued her practice of medicine, as well as teaching and lecturingwidely about public health care issues.

User Contributions:

Its a bloody shame Clinton had the gall to fire her. It shows how much this country is still in the stone age. Surely had something to do with our 'two party system': the Silly Party vs the Stupid Asshole Party. Formula: SY Party + SA Party = NWO. (new world order)

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