Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders

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Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders

Many might be tempted to remember her for a few words uttered in 1994, when, as the nation’s first black Surgeon General, she dared acknowledge the existence of masturbation and said that “perhaps” it should be taught as a way to prevent AIDS. Her remark set off a firestorm that resulted in her involuntary resignation after only 15 months on the job as the nation’s top doc.

As if that could stop or silence Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders. A decade later, she remains as committed, passionate and outspoken as she’s ever been about health, healthcare, sexuality and AIDS.

“I’m concerned about our complacency,” says Elders. “We’ve come a long, long way and done a lot, but we still do not have a cure  The best weapon we’ve got is prevention and education, education, education.”

Elders is now professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. She retired from regular teaching duties in 1998 and continues to speak widely and participate on several national advisory committees. And she’s always talking about HIV/AIDS all over the country, be it a mayor’s task force on AIDS in New Haven, Connecticut, or while delivering a speech on Sex, Health, and Personal Responsibility at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Or you might find her addressing a gathering of black United Methodist churches who’ve come together in the nation’s capital to discuss how the church’s silence around AIDS is killing people. Or she’s speaking at an AIDS conference along with a Miss America in Springfield, Illinois. Wherever she goes, she’s hopeful about the advances sciences has made concerning the disease.

“We used to think the virus infected the body and slept for ten years. Now we know better. We’ve identified the virus. We’ve got wonderful drugs. We’ve converted the disease from a death sentence to a life sentence and learned to live with it. We know how the virus gets in.”

But Elders knows the struggle is far from over, especially when it comes to prevention.

“It’s not just a disease for those infected,” she says. “We need to get everybody involved. It’s all our disease. We all have a stake in it. We need to get churches involved, schools involved, media involved, families involved, communities involved—all pushing, all saying the right things. We need to stop sticking our heads in the sands and began to move forward.”

As if they could silence Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders.

A native of Schaal, Arkansas, Elders is the oldest of eight children and never saw a physician before her first year in college. At age 15, she received a scholarship from the United Methodist Church to attend Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Upon graduating, she entered the US Army as a first lieutenant and received training as a physical therapist. She attended the University of Arkansas Medical School on the GI Bill.

After earning an MD in 1960, Elders interned at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis and completed a pediatric residency at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock. She also earned a master’s degree in biochemistry.

Elders joined the faculty at the University of Arkansas Medical School in 1976 as a professor of pediatrics, and was board-certified as a pediatric endocrinologist in 1978. In 1987, then Governor Bill Clinton named her director of the Arkansas Department of Health, a post she held until her nomination as surgeon general. In 1992, she was elected president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers. Over the years, Elders has been active in civic and health affairs, and has received numerous awards and honorary degrees for her professional and civic work. She has written more than 150 articles based on her studies of growth in children and treatment of hormone-related illnesses. She is also the author of three books, including “Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America.”

An accomplished career with the laurels to match, but Elders isn’t resting much.

“We’ve got to start making sure we have tailored messages to fit the communities we’re targeting,” she says, her tone as resolute as ever. “We need comprehensive sexuality education in schools. The vow of abstinence is broken easier than latex condoms. We need to make sure the government isn’t blinded. We’ve got to make sure all our efforts are focused.”

And for those who would rather dwell on greater threats to America’s existence, Elders has some very poignant ammunition: “Six people died of anthrax. Five people died of small pox. Look at the millions spent on those issues. American people need to wake up and realize the government is using the backs of our children to stay in office. AIDS targets the young, poor and uneducated. We have to wake up and realize we have to solve problems.”

Elders doesn’t apologize for speaking her mind or having her own opinions. Once during a speech at Iowa State University, she gave the audience, especially young adults, a challenge: “Be true leaders, get out and take a position. At times, that’s very difficult, I know. But I hope you will decide to be leaders with a vision, not leaders who run out and take a poll, find out which way the wind is blowing and jump out in front.”

It’s easy to sit back and get comfortable, Elders knows, but she herself has no such plans. When asked what’s next for her, her answer is simple.

“Keep using the most powerful weapon I’ve got: my voice.”

As if they could stop or silence Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders.

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