|Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General. From the National Institutes of Health. Via Wikimedia. Public Domain.|
“No prophet is welcome in his hometown.”
—The Gospel of Saint Luke, 4:24. New American Standard Bible
Joycelyn Elders, MD (b. 1933) was Surgeon General of the United States of America from 1993 to 1994. She was the second woman and the first Black person to have that position. Her life story is one of courage, determination, and the ability to triumph over overwhelming odds.
Joycelyn Elders was born to a poor family in rural Arkansas. She and her seven siblings lived with their parents in “a shack” with neither running water nor electricity. They lived on the food they grew, plus small earnings from picking cotton. She was the valedictorian of her high school class and was awarded a college scholarship. After earning a BS in biology, she enlisted in the US Army where she was trained as a physical therapist. After discharge, she entered the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Her tuition was paid by the GI Bill, which covered educational expenses for military veterans. After medical school graduation (1960), she was a resident in pediatrics and then chief resident at the University of Arkansas Hospital. She earned a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1967 and was board-certified in pediatric endocrinology in 1978.
In 1987 she was appointed director of the Arkansas Department of Public Health by then-governor Bill Clinton. Her efforts resulted in a decrease in pregnancies among teenagers (because of increased availability of birth control methods) and an increase in sex education, immunizations, screening examinations of young children, and testing for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Dr. Elders expressed herself clearly and honestly when discussing issues of importance. She was often called “outspoken” by supporters and detractors. Some examples of her statements illustrate this:
“You’ve got to get people’s attention before you can achieve change.”
On taking office as Surgeon General: “I want to be the voice and the vision for the poor and the powerless.”
She drew a clear connection between health and education: “You can’t keep an ignorant population healthy,” and “You can’t educate a child who isn’t healthy, and you can’t keep a child healthy who isn’t educated.”
She suggested (perhaps too early in the country’s history) that it would be worthwhile to study the idea of legalizing some drugs in order to reduce crime.
She supported a woman’s right to abortion: “We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children.”
On gun control: “Handguns are a public health issue,” and “Guns kill more teenagers than the other big killers—heart disease, cancer, and AIDS—combined.”
Her frank, evidence-based approach to sexuality created much controversy, mainly among the conservative elements of American society. While chief of the Arkansas Department of Health, she talked to a group of clergy about the failure of abstinence as a method of preventing adolescent pregnancy: “Eight-thousand-plus teenagers are having babies in Arkansas every year.” As Surgeon General she said, “Everybody in the world is opposed to sex outside of marriage, and yet everybody does it. I’m saying, ‘Get real’ . . . We know that an awful lot of our children are not being abstinent . . . Since we can’t legislate morals, we have to teach them how to take care of themselves.” She added, “If you can’t control your reproduction, you can’t control your life” and “The best contraceptive in the world is a good education.”
An honest answer to a question about whether masturbation should be promoted as an alternative to riskier sexual activity caused her much trouble. “Masturbation . . . is something that is a part of human sexuality . . . and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught.” Religious, conservative, and puritanical elements of American society criticized this statement loudly and widely. Her friend from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who was by then President, found it politically useful to disavow Dr. Elders and to demand—and receive—her resignation.
In an interview1 worth watching made by Arkansas Public Television in 2009, Dr. Elders stated that, “I have no regrets about what I did.” She would, in fact, do it again, in just the same way.
After leaving Washington, she returned to the University of Arkansas as a professor of pediatrics. She continues to speak about adolescent pregnancy, sexual health, and the responsibility of society to our children. I suspect Dr. Elders would agree with M. K. Gandhi that, “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”
Reference to Interview
- Arkansas PBS. “Men and Women of Distinction: Dr. Joycelyn Elders,” 2009. Myarkansaspbs.org
HOWARD FISHCER, MD, was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan. He is an admirer of Dr. Elders.