Published by Kirby Winn on Thursday, February 17, 2022 in Blog
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution, recognizes the 2022 theme of Black History Month with an online initiative focused on Black Health and Wellness. The museum lists Dr. Joycelyn Elders among its Black Pioneers in Medicine, and for good reason. In 1993, Dr. Elders became the first African American and second woman to serve as Surgeon General of the United States.
Born in 1933 in a farming community of rural Arkansas, Dr. Elders became the first member of her family to pursue higher education when she earned a scholarship to attend Philander Smith College in Little Rock. She was drawn to the study of biology and chemistry in college and initially made plans to become a laboratory technician. She was later inspired to pursue a degree in medicine upon hearing a speech by Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to study at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. After her graduation, Dr. Elders joined the U. S. Army's Women’s Medical Specialist Corps and in 1956, she entered the Arkansas Medical School on the G.I. Bill.
Following her internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Elders returned to Little Rock in 1961 for her residency and was quickly appointed chief pediatric resident, in charge of an all-white and all-male group of residents and interns. She later became a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, combining her successful clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Elders as head of the Arkansas Department of Public Health in 1987. When Gov. Clinton became President, he nominated Dr. Elders to serve as the nation’s first African American Surgeon General. She was confirmed in September 1993 and served in this role for 15 months. Her time in office was frequently marked by controversy and challenges to her progressive policy ideas, yet she continued to raise controversial issues for debate.
Following her service as U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Elders returned to her career at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine and wrote her autobiography in 1996, titled “Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America.” Learn more about Dr. Joycelyn Elders through the National Museum of African American History and Culture and through the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.