Health + Wellness: Joycelyn Elders

Episode Summary

Joycelyn Elders (1933-present) is a pediatrician and public health advocate who served as Surgeon General of the United States. Her research and dedication to public health was questioned at most every turn, especially regarding her support of sex ed curriculums, which are still taught in schools across the country.

Episode Notes

Joycelyn Elders (1933-present) is a pediatrician and public health advocate who served as Surgeon General of the United States. Her research and dedication to public health was questioned at most every turn, especially regarding her support of sex ed curriculums, which are still taught in schools across the country.

History classes can get a bad wrap, and sometimes for good reason. When we were students, we couldn’t help wondering... where were all the ladies at? Why were so many incredible stories missing from the typical curriculum? Enter, Womanica. On this Wonder Media Network podcast we explore the lives of inspiring women in history you may not know about, but definitely should.

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know–but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Educators, Villains, Indigenous Storytellers, Activists, and many more.  Womanica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures. 

Womanica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, Brittany Martinez, Edie Allard, Lindsey Kratochwill, Sundus Hassan, Adesuwa Agbonile, Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, and Ale Tejeda. Special thanks to Shira Atkins.

We are offering free ad space on Wonder Media Network shows to organizations working towards social justice. For more information, please email Jenny at pod@wondermedianetwork.com.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

To take the Womanica listener survey, please visit: https://wondermedianetwork.com/survey 

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. This is Womanica.

This month, we’re talking about the women who’ve made important contributions to the world of health and wellness. 

Today, we’re talking about a woman who fought against skeptics throughout her career in order to shed light on some of today’s most crucial health crises. Her research and dedication to public health was questioned at most every turn, especially regarding her support of sex ed curriculums, which are still taught in schools across the country. Please welcome the nation’s 15th Surgeon General: Joycelyn Elders.

Joycelyn was born Minnie Lees Jones in Schaal, Arkansas on August 13, 1933. She was the eldest of eight children. Joycelyn, her siblings, and her parents worked as sharecroppers in a poor, segregated, and rural region. According to her autobiography, Joycleyn’s mom taught her how to read and write, so by the age of 5, Joycelyn could attend school.

When she was 15, Joycelyn graduated as valedictorian from Howard County Training School. Then, with a scholarship from the United Methodist Church, she enrolled at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, an all-Black school.. The bus fare from Schaal to Little Rock was too much for her family to afford – about $4. So, she and her siblings picked cotton and performed extra chores to raise enough money.

At college, Joycelyn  quickly fell in love with her biology and chemistry classes. She joined Delta Sigma Theta, an organization of college women committed to public service in the Black community. And she was studying to become a lab technician– that is, until she attended a talk sponsored by her sorority. The talk featured invited Dr. Edith Irby Jones. Dr. Jones, a medical doctor, was the first African American woman to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School. Before meeting Dr. Jones, Joycelyn hadn’t met a doctor, and certainly hadn’t met a Black woman doctor.  After hearing the speech, Joycelyn was inspired to pursue her new dream of becoming a doctor.

In 1953, Joycelyn enlisted in the army and trained in physical therapy. She treated people who were wounded in the Korean war, and even worked as part of the physical therapy team for former President Dwight Eisenhower after he had a heart attack.    

Three years after enlisting, Joycelyn was discharged. And she used the GI Bill, to enroll at the University of Arkansas Medical School – the same school Dr. Jones attended. There, Joycelyn began her career as a doctor. By this point “separate but equal” education had been deemed unconstitutional. But in reality, segregation was still in place around the country. In fact, not far from the university was the Little Rock Central High school – where nine Black teenagers famously desegregated the school. 

 Meanwhile, at medical school, Joycelyn had to eat in a separate dining room with the few other Black medical students in her class and the school’s cleaning staff.

During those years, Joycelyn also used her physical therapy experience to perform examinations for the local high school basketball team. There, she met the team’s coach, Oliver Elders. They were married in 1960.

After an internship in Minnesota, Joycelyn returned to the University of Arkansas for her residency and became chief resident. She was in charge of the all-white, all-male residents and interns. In the next 15 years, Joycelyn received her master’s degree in biochemistry, and became professor of pediatrics at the school. In 1978, she became the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology.

For the rest of her career, Joycelyn dedicated her work to researching endocrine issues in children and understanding the societal consequences of those conditions. She also worked extensively in juvenile diabetes. Treating her patients got her interested in sex education – she realized that young women with diabetes faced increased health risks in pregnancy. As a result, she directly engaged in advocacy work around sex ed and enabling those women to control their own fertility.

In 1987, Then-governor Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn to head the Arkansas Department of Health, where she continued to campaign for expanded sex education and more public health support. Her work drew criticism from conservatives– but in 1989, Arkansas introduced mandatory K-12 curriculums including sex education, substance-abuse prevention, and programs to promote self esteem. While in office, Joycelyn saw prenatal and at-home care options expand and childhood immunizations nearly double.

In 1993, President Clinton once again called uponJoycelyn to fill a major health office. This time, as the US Surgeon General, making her the first African American Surgeon General in the U.S. Joycelyn was met with robust opposition in this new role, as well. She took controversial stances on topics like the legalization of drugs, and advocating for sex education. She also advocated for the pro-choice movement, universal healthcare, and better access to safe forms of abortion. And just to remind everyone, she kept a condom tree on her desk 

On World AIDS Day, December 1st, 1994, Joycelyn appeared as part of a United Nations panel discussion on destigmatizing sex and sexual education as a method of combatting the AIDS epidemic. During the discussion, Joycelyn said children should learn about masturbation as a normal part of human sexuality. 

It caused an uproar in the media. A week after the conference, the White House Chief of Staff, and later President Clinton himself, asked Joycelyn to step down from her position.

Joycelyn resigned in December of 1994, after having served for 15 months. After that, she returned to the University of Arkansas as a researcher and professor. She also wrote an autobiography in 1996. 

Joycelyn retired from medical practice in 1999. But she hasn’t stopped working to support causes she believes in.  Joycelyn became a spokesperson for “Changing the Face of Medicine,” advocating for racial equality in medicine. In that role, she would tour schools to show young kids, especially young Black kids that a career in medicine is possible –  something she had learned thanks to Dr. Jones so many decades earlier. 

And in 2020, at the age of 86, Joycelyn led a project to help track the health of people who voted in-person in Wisconsin as the coronavirus outbreak swelled. 

Her legacy lives on at  the University of Minnesota Medical School, which established the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. It aims to create a life-long sexual education curriculum to increase the number of health providers trained in sexual health care. 

Today, Joycelyn is professor emerita at the University of Arkansas Medical College, still advocating and speaking out about what she believes in.

All month, we’re honoring women who changed the landscape of health and wellness. 

For more information and pictures of some of the work we’re talking about, find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!