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Medicine: Joycelyn Elders

By Marquiesha Riggans
On February 21, 2019

Joycelyn Elders was the rst African Americansurgeon general in the U.S. Official photo

Black History Month is all about paying tribute and celebrating the achievements of generations of African American men and women who helped pave the way for many. Black History Month is a time of rejoicing, celebrating and thanking those African-Americans for giving all hope or a life lesson that could be used. 


Every year for the whole month of February, certain individuals are acknowledged, like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and so many more legends who served as activists during the Civil Rights Movements or as innovators throughout history.


Black History Month is the time to take time out and seek information on other lesser-recognized African-Americans who are historic figures.


For example, Joycelyn Elders doesn’t get the recognition she should for all the contributions she has made and is still making. Joycelyn Elders was the first African American United States surgeon general in 1993 and the second female to head the U.S. Public Health Service. 


During her 15 months as surgeon general, Elders added tobacco use, national health care, and drug and alcohol abuse to her list of major concerns. During her brief time as U.S. surgeon general, Elders also helped develop the Office of Adolescent Health, which is now part of the Department of Health and Human Services. 


Elders was ahead on many public health issues. She advocated for increased access to health care, assistance for treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, and the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. 


Elders was born Minnie Jones on August 13, 1933, in the farming community of Schaal, Arkansas. She changed her name to Jocelyn in college. Living in a poor, segregated area, she and her seven siblings worked in the cotton fields and attended an all-black school 13 miles from their home.  


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, Wisconsin, for a period, she joined the United States Army in May 1953. During her three 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. in biochemistry in 1967.  


Elders is also active in the fight for racial equality in medicine. 


She is currently a professor emerita of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine and is a featured public speaker, particularly at events promoting the legalization of marijuana and improvements to sexual education and public health. 


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