Joycelyn Jones Elders
former U.S. surgeon general
Birthplace: Schaal, Arkansas
Elders briefly served as the surgeon general of the United States under President Bill Clinton. She was confirmed in September 1993 and angered conservatives from the get-go, as she was vocal in her support of sex education, the distribution of condoms in schools, abortion rights, and the medical use of marijuana. It was her December 1994 statement that “masturbation is part of human sexuality and a part of something that perhaps should be taught” that prompted President Clinton to seek and receive her to resignation.
Elders was born in poor, rural Arkansas. She and her seven siblings worked in cotton fields with their sharecropper parents. When she was 15, Elders won a scholarship to Philander Smith College, an all-Black school in Little Rock. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1952 and entered the army, where she studied physical therapy. She enrolled in the University of Arkansas Medical School (UAMS) and received a M.D. in 1960, one of three minority students to do so. She married Oliver Elders that year. She served as chief pediatric resident at the University of Arkansas Medical Center. She continued her education, receiving an M.S. in biochemistry from UAMS in 1967. Elders became an expert in pediatric diabetes and accepted a post on the UAMS faculty in 1971.
Arkansas governor Bill Clinton named her director of the state's department of health in 1987. In addition to championing liberal health-related issues, she also sought to provide health care to poor areas and reduce the number of teen pregnancies. She vastly increased the number of children receiving immunizations.
Not all of Elders's efforts as surgeon general were controversial. She tried to expand the number of certified nurse practitioners and physician assistants to extend health care to poor communities and she also recommended a tax increase on tobacco products. She returned to her teaching position after she resigned as surgeon general.