A Look Back in History: Joycelyn Elders –The First African-American Surgeon General

Joycelyn Elders was born Aug. 13, 1933, in Schaal, Arkansas. She was raised in a poor farming community where she would miss school from September to December to help with the harvest.

After high school, she earned a scholarship to the all-black Philander Smith College in Little Rock. She enjoyed biology and chemistry. Her love for the subjects and achievements of Edith Irby Jones, the first African-American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, influenced Elders to become a physician.

In 1952, she received her bachelor’s degree in biology from Philander Smith College. She moved to Milwaukee to work as a nurse’s aide in a Veterans Administration hospital. Then she joined the Army in May of 1953 for three years. After that, she attended the University of Arkansas Medical School and earned a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1960.

After a residency in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, Elders also earned a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1967. Elders went on to become an assistant professor of pediatrics at the university’s medical school in 1971 and a full-time professor in 1976.

In 1987, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas called on her to become the state’s director of public health. Elders worked to reduce teen pregnancy by making birth control and sex education available to teenagers. She also made HIV testing and counseling more available.

Elders became the U.S. surgeon general on Sept. 8, 1993. She was chosen by then-President Clinton and was the first African-American to hold that position.

As surgeon general, Elders argued the case for universal health coverage. She was a strong advocate for comprehensive health education and sex education in schools. She was forced to resign after only 15 months as a result of what many considered a controversial remark about sex education. Her last day in office was Dec. 31, 1994. She returned to the University of Arkansas Medical Center as a professor of pediatrics.