Joycelyn Elders: An inspiration to all

Summer Blog Post #3 - Monday, August 3, 2020

Joycelyn Elders is a woman with humble beginnings who was able to reach great heights. Born on August 13, 1933, in a poor Arkansas community, she grew up as the eldest of eight children. To make ends meet, she worked on her family’s farm to the extent that it was often prioritized over attending her segregated school several miles away. Still, after finishing high school, she attended Philander Smith College, paying for fees using the money she and her siblings worked extra hours to obtain.

Elders had come to college with the mindset that she would one day become a lab technician, the only career path thought to be suitable for someone like her. But it was at this same college where a speech from Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, would inspire her to pursue medicine. Despite never having been in a doctor’s office until the age of 16, a young Joycelyn Elders now had reason to believe such a career was possible for her as well.

Elders’ route to medicine was somewhat unorthodox, initially serving in the military to make herself eligible for the G.I. Bill before joining the University of Arkansas Medical School class of 1960. After completing her residency in pediatrics and obtaining a master’s in biochemistry, her research in pediatric endocrinology led her to become an early advocate for adolescent health.

Expanding on this new-found passion, she would go on to be appointed the head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987 before being named the U.S. Surgeon General by President Clinton in 1993: the first African American and only the second woman to ever hold such a title. Obtaining this position did not come without adversity; however, as her outspoken support for sex education made for a lengthy and controversial confirmation process.

Nevertheless, in these positions, Elders was able to legislate educational programs that touched on important topics including sex education and substance-abuse prevention. Her work produced significant increases in early childhood screenings from 1988 to 1992, a rise in the immunization rate of two-year-olds, and added availability of HIV testing, breast cancer screenings, and care for the elderly and terminally ill.

After causing a great amount of controversy with her healthcare ideology, she was asked by the president to step down in 1994. Still, she continued to teach and practice pediatric endocrinology at the University of Arkansas. Today she continues her advocacy, now pushing for more black physicians in the medical field.

Elders’ story is one of courage and determination. Despite the backlash she received, Elders was never afraid to speak up for what she believed in and to be the one who started necessary conversations. Her humble upbringing demonstrates that total exposure to a field of interest is not always necessary before pursuing it. Instead, by finding inspiration and discovering a driving passion, as she did in Edith Jones and her advocacy for education respectively, you can achieve a meaningful and personal version of success. By putting yourself out there, you give others the opportunity to take a chance on themselves as well.

By: Anonymous