Black in the Day…Changing the Face of Medicine

September 7, 1993:

On this day Dr. Jocelyn Elders changed the face of Medicine in America.

Joycelyn Elders, the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, was the fifteenth Surgeon General of the United States, the first African American and only the second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service. Long an outspoken advocate of public health, Elders was appointed Surgeon General by President Clinton on September 7, 1993.

Elders was born Minnie Lee Jones in Schaal, Arkansas,[2] to a poor farm sharecropping family, and was the eldest of eight children, and valedictorian of her school class.[3] The family also spent two years near a defense plant in Richmond, California. In college, she changed her name to Minnie Joycelyn Lee. In 1952, she received her B.S. degree in Biology from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she also pledged Delta Sigma Theta. After working as a nurse’s aide in a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee for a period,[citation needed] she joined the United States Army in May 1953. During her 3 years in the Army, she was trained as a physical therapist. She then attended the University of Arkansas Medical School, where she obtained her M.D. degree in 1960. After completing an internship at the University of Minnesota Hospital and a residency in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, Elders earned an M.S. in Biochemistry in 1967.

Even though Elders was a pediatric endocrinologist and a professor at one of the nation’s top medical schools, she was not immune from racism in the workplace. “Some people in the American Medical Association, a certain group of them, didn’t even know that I was a physician. And they were passing a resolution to say that from now on every Surgeon General must be a physician–which was a knock at me. … They don’t expect a black female to have accomplished what I have and to have done the things that I have.”[5]

During an interview, she was asked if she related to Shirley Chisholm’s statement about feeling more oppressed as a woman than as an African American, and replied by saying, “I am who I am because I’m a black woman”.[6] Elders was able to be the voice for the African-American community and speak on poverty and its role in teenage pregnancy, which is a major issue within the community. Poor African-American teenage mothers are “captive to a slavery the 13th Amendment did not anticipate”,[7] which is a major reason why she stressed the importance of teaching sex education in public schools.

Dr. Elders left office in 1994 and in 1995 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.

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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