You may not have heard of her, but she created a lasting impact in healthcare and helped benefit different communities, especially those in poverty. Who is she, you may ask? Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders.
Born in poverty in 1933, Joycelyn Elders grew up in rural, segregated Arkansas. Joycelyn, herself, had not even visited a doctor until she was 16 (AAMC). It wasn’t until she heard Edith Irby Jones speak, who was the first African American at the University of Arkansas Medical School, that she realized her aspiration for becoming a physician. In 1956, Elders enrolled in the Army to train in physical therapy. Later, in 1967, Elders earned her master’s degree in biochemistry and became an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas after becoming chief resident among a class of all-white, all-male doctors. She then became a full professor in 1976.
Eventually, Elders went on to pursue the field of pediatric endocrinology and published tons of papers on adolescent diabetes. What truly made a tremendous remark, however, was her dedication to educating youth on sexual behavior. She campaigned to expand sex education and sought to make it available to all groups of people, especially the disadvantaged.
Elders’ most important milestone in history was her appointment to Surgeon General in 1993. Even with the controversy and hate she faced, Elders led on and advocated for sexual education and helped inform the public on youth diabetes.
Unfortunately, due to controversial remarks on “sex education, masturbation, and distribution of condoms” she was forced to resign in 1994 (AAMC). As she returned to her position as faculty researcher at the University of Arkansas, Elders still led and marched on. She was an innovative thinker and helped improve the lives of many young adults through her sexual education courses. Not only that, but she left her mark on K-12 curriculum on sexual education, promoting self-esteem, and prevention of substance-abuse.
As Jocelyn Elders once said “Health is more than absence of disease; it is about economics, education, environment, empowerment, and community.”