Dr. Joycelyn Elders
Joycelyn Elders, the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, was the sixteenth 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 in 1993.Joycelyn Elders, the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, was the sixteenth 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 in 1993.
Born to poor farming parents in 1933, Joycelyn Elders grew up in a rural, segregated, poverty-stricken pocket of Arkansas. She was the eldest of eight children, and she and her siblings had to combine work in the cotton fields from age 5 with their education at a segregated school thirteen miles from home. They often missed school during harvest time, September to DecemberJoycelyn Elders, the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, was the sixteenth Surgeon General of the United States, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, speak at a college sorority. Elders—who had not even met a doctor until she was 16 years old—decided that becoming a physician was possible, and she wanted to be like Jones.
After college, Elders joined the Army and trained in physical therapy at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. After discharge in 1956 she enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School on the G.I. Bill. Although the Supreme Court had declared separate but equal education unconstitutional two years earlier, Elders was still required to use a separate dining room—where the cleaning staff ate. She met her husband, Oliver Elders, while performing physical exams for the high school basketball team he managed, and they were married in 1960.
Elders did an internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, and in 1961 returned to the University of Arkansas for her residency. Elders 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 full professor in 1976.
Over the next twenty years, Elders combined her clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology, publishing well over a hundred papers, most dealing with problems of growth and juvenile diabetes. This work led her to study of sexual behavior and her advocacy on behalf of adolescents. She saw that young women with diabetes face health risks if they become pregnant too young—include spontaneous abortion and possible congenital abnormalities in the infant. She helped her patients to control their fertility and advised them on the safest time to start a family.
Governor Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987. As she campaigned for clinics and expanded sex education, she caused a storm of controversy among conservatives and some religious groups. Yet, largely because of her lobbying, in 1989 the Arkansas Legislature mandated a K-12 curriculum that included sex education, substance-abuse prevention, and programs to promote self-esteem. From 1987 to 1992, she nearly doubled childhood immunizations, expanded the state’s prenatal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically or terminally ill.
In 1993, President Clinton appointed Dr. Elders U.S. Surgeon General. Despite opposition from conservative critics, she was confirmed and sworn in on September 10, 1993. During her fifteen months in office she faced skepticism regarding her progressive policies yet continued to bring controversial issues up for debate. As she later concluded, change can only come about when the Surgeon General can get people to listen and talk about difficult subjects.
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.
Be the Change Agents
Below, she offers advice to soon-to-be SCU graduates about how to shape the future of healthcare in America.
What shaped your progressive views about sexuality and reproductive justice early on in your career?
In the ‘60s, I was the only pediatric endocrinologist in Arkansas. I worked in a very poor section of the state, and I was taking care of children with all kinds of problems related to sexuality and reproductive health. I also was taking care of people who were becoming parents before they were adults. I really had to think holistically about sexuality. It’s part of life, from birth until death.
How has American healthcare changed since when you were a new physician?
Healthcare has changed for the better. We have far more knowledge, and care is more patient-centered. And we’re beginning to think about ways to improve healthcare for everybody— people of all incomes and backgrounds.
“Now is the perfect time for bright, young graduates to be involved in the change and transform healthcare into what they want it to be.”
What needs to be improved?
The United States still spends more money on healthcare than any other country in the world, but we don’t have the healthiest people. We spend most of our money on taking care of the sick, instead of keeping people well. We’re going to have to spend much more time and money on preventive health and getting people involved in their own care.
How can the next generation of healthcare professionals make a difference in the world?
Graduates today need to be change agents. I often use the old adage about a washing machine: When it’s still, it’s difficult to move, but as soon as it starts shaking and jumping around, almost anybody can move it. The best time to change something is when there is an uproar. So now is the perfect time for bright, young graduates to be involved in the change and transform healthcare into what they want it to be.
You have to have gumption and be clear about your own goals. You can’t be afraid to ask for what you want — you’ll get it sometimes. You can’t be afraid to ask our politicians, our patients, our schools — we have to ask everybody to help bring about the change that needs to occur. And you have to keep your eye on the prize, without worrying about who gets the credit. If the prize is making sure that all people have the best health that they possibly can, no one group or one person can get it all done alone.
“Integrative medicine is the way of the future. And I think it’s wonderful that SCU is using the most cutting-edge scientific approaches to inform how their students treat the whole person.”
How does SCU’s mission of integrative and interprofessional education fit into that vision?
Integrative medicine is the way of the future. We’ve been doing a lot of things in medicine the same old way for thousands of years, and it’s time to do something different. I think it’s important to look at the whole person — their physical, mental and spiritual needs. And I think it’s wonderful that SCU is using the most cutting-edge scientific approaches to inform how their students treat the whole person.
What is your one-sentence piece of advice for the SCU graduating Class of 2017?
Always do your very best for every patient that you see, and that’s good enough.