M. Joycelyn Elders
National Visionary

Born August 13, 1933 in Schaal, Arkansas

First African American appointed Surgeon General of the United States

M. Joycelyn Elders, the daughter of a sharecropper, made history in 1993 by becoming the first African American appointed United States Surgeon General. Elders was only the second woman to head up the U.S. Public Health Service.

Elders at age 15
She was born Minnie Lee Jones on August 13, 1933 in Schaal, Arkansas. Elders is the oldest of eight children born to Haller and Curtis Jones, who lived in a poor, segregated farming community. She and her siblings had to balance working in the cotton fields with attending an all-black school 13 miles away. One of Elders’ earliest memories was being taught to read by her mother, who only had an eighth-grade education. After high school, she earned a scholarship to Philander Smith College, an all-black, liberal arts school in Little Rock. Her father was against her attending because she was needed at home, but her paternal grandmother persuaded him to let her go. She was the first in her family to pursue higher education.
Elders was drawn to biology and chemistry and decided to become a lab technician. But after meeting, Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to study at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, Elders knew she wanted to become a doctor.
After graduation, Elders was married briefly and then joined the United States Army’s Women’s Medical Specialist Corps. In 1956, she entered the Arkansas Medical School on the G.I. Bill. The only black student in her class, Elders was required to eat in a separate dining room with the cleaning staff. She met her second husband, Oliver Elders, while giving physicals to high school students he coached. They married in 1960.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
She interned in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, and then returned to Little Rock in 1961 for her residency.  Elders was appointed chief pediatric resident. As such, she supervised the white male residents. Over the next 20 years, Elders combined a successful clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology (the study of glands). She became a pioneer in growth problems and juvenile diabetes.
In 1987, Governor Bill Clinton named Elders director of the Arkansas Department of Health. She became entangled in a heated battle with both political and religious conservatives, after campaigning for school clinics that distributed contraceptives and expanded sex education. After becoming president, Clinton nominated Elders for Surgeon General. In late 1993, she sparked a national debate regarding the legalization of street drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Another controversy developed over a statement she made at a United Nations’ World AIDS conference regarding the teaching of masturbation in schools. Elders was forced to resign in December 1994.

In January 1995, Elders returned to the University of Arkansas as a faculty researcher and professor of pediatric endocrinology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Her autobiography, Joycelyn Elders, MD: From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America, was published in 1996. She retired in 1999.


• Joycelyn Elders' Wikipedia Page

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