Joycelyn Elders

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Joycelyn Elders
Joycelyn Elders official photo portrait.jpg
15th Surgeon General of the United States
In office
September 8, 1993 – December 31, 1994
President Bill Clinton
Preceded by Robert A. Whitney
Succeeded by Audrey F. Manley
Personal details
Born Minnie Lee Jones
(1933-08-13) August 13, 1933 (age 83)
Schaal, Arkansas, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Military service
Service/branch Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, United States Army
Years of service USA: 1953–1956
Rank USPHS: Vice Admiral

Minnie Joycelyn Elders (born Minnie Lee Jones; August 13, 1933) is an American pediatrician and public health administrator. She was a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the first African American appointed as Surgeon General of the United States. Elders is best known for her frank discussion of her views on controversial issues such as drug legalization and distributing contraception in schools.[1] She was fired in December 1994 amidst controversy as a result of her views. She is currently a professor emerita of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Early life and education[edit]

Elders was born Minnie Lee Jones in Schaal, Arkansas,[2] to a poor farm sharecropping family, and was the eldest of eight children, and valedictorian of her school class.[3] The family also spent two years near a defense plant in Richmond, California. In college, she changed her name to Minnie Joycelyn Lee. In 1952, she received her B.S. degree in Biology from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she also pledged Delta Sigma Theta. After working as a nurse's aide in a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee for a period,[citation needed] she joined the United States Army in May 1953. During her 3 years in the Army, she was trained as a physical therapist. She then attended the University of Arkansas Medical School, where she obtained her M.D. degree in 1960. After completing an internship at the University of Minnesota Hospital and a residency in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, Elders earned an M.S. degree in Biochemistry in 1967.

Surgeon General of the United States[edit]

Elders has received a National Institutes of Health career development award, also serving as assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center from 1967. She was promoted to associate professor in 1971 and professor in 1976. Her research interests focused on endocrinology, and she received board certification as a pediatric endocrinologist in 1978, becoming the first person in the state of Arkansas to do so.[3] Elders received a D.Sc. degree from Bates College in 2002.

In 1987, then-Governor Bill Clinton appointed Elders as Director of the Arkansas Department of Health. Her accomplishments in this position included a tenfold increase in the number of early childhood screenings annually and almost a doubling of the immunization rate for two-year-olds in Arkansas. In 1992, she was elected President of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.

In January 1993, Bill Clinton appointed her as the United States Surgeon General, making her the first African American and the second woman (following Antonia Novello) to hold the position. She was a controversial choice and a strong backer of the Clinton health care plan, so she was not confirmed until September 7, 1993. As Surgeon General, Elders quickly established a reputation for controversy. Like many of the Surgeons General before her, she was an outspoken advocate of a variety of health-related causes. She argued for an exploration of the possibility of drug legalization and backed the distribution of contraceptives in schools. President Clinton stood by Elders, saying that she was misunderstood.[1]

Views on drug legalization[edit]

Elders drew fire - and censure from the Clinton administration - when she suggested that legalizing drugs might help reduce crime and that the idea should be studied. On December 15, 1993, around one week after making these comments, charges were filed against her son Kevin, for selling cocaine in an incident involving undercover officers, four months prior. Elders believes the incident was a frame-up and the timing of the charges was designed to embarrass her and the president.[4] Kevin Elders was convicted, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.[5] He appealed his conviction to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and that court reaffirmed the conviction. The court held that Mr. Elders failed to show that he was entrapped into making the narcotics sale.[6] There was no further appeal.

Comments on human sexuality and termination[edit]

In 1994, she was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS. She was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, and she replied, "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught." This remark caused great controversy and resulted in Elders losing the support of the White House. White House chief of staff Leon Panetta remarked, "There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many."[1] Elders was fired by President Clinton in December 1994.[1][7][8] Elders had previously made a number of other statements that put her in the public spotlight, like her quote in January 1994 in the context of abortion: "We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children."[9]

A collection of her professional papers are held at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.[10]

Post-governmental activities[edit]

Since leaving her post as Surgeon General, she has returned to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as professor of pediatrics, and is currently professor emerita at UAMS.[11] She is a regular on the lecture circuit, speaking against teen pregnancy. She has appeared on TV in Penn and Teller: Bullshit! during the episode on abstinence, where she says that she considers abstinence-only programs to be child abuse and discusses her opinions on teenage sex education, masturbation and contraceptives. She is interviewed in the 2013 documentary How to Lose Your Virginity on her opinions regarding comprehensive sex education versus abstinence-only sex education.[12]

Elders wrote a book[13] in an attempt to present her side of the controversies that surrounded her during her 16-month tenure as Surgeon General.

In an October 15, 2010 article she clearly voiced support for legalization of marijuana:[14]

I think we consume far more dangerous drugs that are legal: cigarette smoking, nicotine and alcohol... I feel they cause much more devastating effects physically. We need to lift the prohibition on marijuana.

She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1991.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d Duffy, Michael (December 19, 1994). "Getting Out the Wrecking Ball". Time. Retrieved July 22, 2007. 
  2. ^ "Joycelyn Elders, MD, 15th US Surgeon General". University of Minnesota. Retrieved February 16, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b "Biography: Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders". NLM/NIH. Retrieved February 16, 2013. 
  4. ^ Cynthia Cotts (October 30, 1995). "The Crucifixion of Kevin Elders". Albion Monitor. Retrieved January 17, 2008. 
  5. ^ "Top Doc's Son Gets 10 Years". Time. August 29, 1994. Retrieved August 22, 2009. 
  6. ^ Elders v. State, 321 Ark. 60, 900 S.W.2d 170 (1995).
  7. ^ Mitchell, Alison (November 6, 1996). "President Clinton Makes a Celebratory Return to His Starting Point in Arkansas". The New York Times. Retrieved January 17, 2008. 
  8. ^ Dash, Leon (January 1997). "Joycelyn Elders: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America". The Washington Monthly. Retrieved January 17, 2008. 
  9. ^ Dreifus, Claudia (January 30, 1994). "Joycelyn Elders". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ "Jocelyn Elders Surgeon-General Speech Collection 1992-1994". National Library of Medicine. 
  11. ^ Ambrose, Susan A. (1997). Journeys of women in science and engineering : no universal constants. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 1566395275. 
  12. ^ Gray, Emma (May 7, 2012). "Therese Shechter, Director Of Film 'How To Lose Your Virginity,' Talks Female Sexuality, 'Purity' And The Virgin-Whore Complex". The Huffington Post. Retrieved October 24, 2013. 
  13. ^ Joycelyn Elders, Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper's Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America, Harper Perennial (1997)
  14. ^ Nagourney, Adam (October 15, 2010). "U.S. Will Enforce Marijuana Laws, State Vote Aside". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ "CHRONICLE". The New York Times. June 26, 1991. 
  • Joycelyn Elders, M.D. by Dr. Joycelyn Elders and David Chanoff. Another Surgeon General's autobiography.

External links[edit]