“I went to Washington, not to get that job but to do that job. 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 health care. I wanted to do something to reduce teenage pregnancies and begin to address the needs of our adolescents.”
Joycelyn Elders was born Minnie Lee Jones in Schaal, Arkansas on August 12, 1933, and began using the name Joycelyn Lee in college. Her mother stressed the value of education to all eight of her children, saying “if you want to get out of the cotton patch, you’ve got to get something in your head” and teaching them to read at an early age, correcting their mistakes with a switch.
Elders was valedictorian of her high school class but had no plans to attend college until graduation night when she was awarded a United Methodist Women's scholarship to Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Her brothers and sisters picked cotton to raise the $3.83 she needed for bus fare. She majored in biology and aspired to be a lab technician until she heard Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, speak at a chapel service.
Elders interned at the University of Minnesota, and returned to the University of Arkansas for her residency in pediatrics and an MS in biochemistry, becoming chief resident and joining the U of A faculty where she became a full professor in 1976. She became the only physician in Arkansas to be certified in pediatric endocrinology in 1978 and has published over 100 research papers, primarily on juvenile diabetes. This research, including the effects of diabetes on pregnancy, led to her study of sexuality and advocacy on behalf of young people.
While serving as Surgeon General she continued to be outspoken on these issues, as well as the possibility of legalizing drugs to reduce crime. After responding to a comment from an audience member about masturbation after U. N. Conference on AIDS she was fired by the White House. (Her description of the incident can be read in this interview by UMC.org Profiles on page 5.)
Elders returned to the faculty of the University of Arkansas Medical School. She is now retired but continues to be a strong advocate for reproductive rights and health education.
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"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
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