Arkansas PBS > Engage > Pressroom > AETN documents life of Dr. Joycelyn Elders; Personal interview with first black U.S. surgeon general premieres Dec. 28

AETN documents life of Dr. Joycelyn Elders; Personal interview with first black U.S. surgeon general premieres Dec. 28

Posted 28 Dec 2009

In this one-on-one interview, Elders opens up about her childhood, the struggle to make it to Little Rock for her first day of college and stories of her residency at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences that influenced her to become an advocate for children’s health and an opponent of teenage pregnancy.

Born the daughter of a sharecropper in Howard County during the Great Depression, Elders showed academic promise at an early age and earned a scholarship to Philander Smith College in 1949, making her the first in her family to attend college. Inspired by an Edith Irby Jones lecture, the first woman to attend UAMS, Elders joined the U.S. Army’s Medical Specialist Corps where she was trained as a physical therapist to treat wounded Korean War veterans. With the help of the GI Bill of Rights, Elders earned an M.D. and a master’s degree in biochemistry from UAMS and was later appointed chief pediatric resident specializing in pediatric endocrinology at UAMS. In 1987, then governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton appointed Elders Director of the Arkansas Department of Health.

“You always hear how if you work hard, get good grades and study in school that you can make a better life for yourself. Well, Dr. Elders is proof that this is true,” Mark Wilcken, producer of “Men and Women of Distinction” said. “She grew up poor, but she had access to an education and she studied hard, got good grades and earned her way out of the cotton fields.”

After proving herself a strong advocate of public health, President Bill Clinton appointed Elders U.S. surgeon general in 1993. As surgeon general, Elders focused on tobacco-related disease, AIDS, alcohol and drug addiction as well as sex education. Her views on drug addiction and sex education drew criticism from conservatives and eventually forced Elders to resign in 1994.

“I loved being surgeon general and if I had the opportunity to do that job again, I would do exactly the same thing,” Elders said. “I feel I did it right the first time.”

Elders continued to lecture on public health issues and served as faculty researcher at UAMS. In 1996 she published her autobiography “Joycelyn Elders, MD: From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States.” 

Elders retired from medicine in 1999 but continues to support public health education and speak on issues regarding AIDS, adolescent sexuality and national health care.

“The legacy that I would like for people to remember me by is that I always fought for our adolescents and our young people and I supported the things that we needed to do to make life better for them,” Elders said.

 “Men and Women of Distinction: Dr. Joycelyn Elders” is hosted by Ernie Dumas.

“Men and Women of Distinction: Dr. Joycelyn Elders” will repeat Friday, Jan. 8, at 6:30 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 10 at 10:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 24 at 2:30 p.m.

“Men and Women of Distinction” features interviews with prominent Arkansans known for their citizenship, character and accomplishments. The series has previously featured former governors and U.S. senators David Pryor and Dale Bumpers, as well as former governor Sid McMath and Judge Morris Arnold.

The Arkansas Educational Television Network ( provides lifelong learning opportunities, improves and enhances Arkansans’ lives and celebrates the unique culture of Arkansas through its programming and services. AETN’s digital transmitters and numerous cable system connections give it statewide reach.