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She Became The First African American Woman To Serve As The U.S. Surgeon General In 1993 And Advocated For Better Health Education For American Children

Fabio Balbi - stock.adobe.com - illustrative purposes only

As Black History Month comes to a close, it’s important to continue to spread stories of amazing African American men and women who made history and changed lives.

One of those people is Dr. Joycelen Elders, the first African American woman to serve as the U.S. Surgeon General and a passionate advocate for public health and education.

Joycelyn was born in Arkansas in 1933. Her family consisted of low-income farmers, and she was the youngest of eight children. As a child, due to segregation, she had to work on her family’s farm and travel over 10 miles to get to a segregated school.

After graduating high school, Joycelen received a scholarship to attend the all-Black liberal arts school Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. She worked cleaning jobs to afford her tuition and enjoyed studying chemistry and biology.

As Joycelen got older, she developed a desire to become a physician. After briefly joining the Army to study physical therapy, she decided to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School on her G.I. Bill after getting discharged in 1956.

Joycelen had to put up with a lot of segregation and discrimination in school, having to study and eat in different rooms from her peers. However, during that experience, she met her husband, Oliver Elders, and married him in 1960.

In 1961, Joycelen returned to the University of Arkansas to finish her residency and was soon named the chief resident in charge of white male interns and residents. After receiving her master’s in biochemistry in 1967, she eventually became a full-time professor for the medical school by 1976.

From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Joycelen began researching and writing informative papers on adolescent health, including adolescent fertility and pediatric endocrinology. Her work eventually caught the eye of former President Bill Clinton while he was still Governor of Arkansas, and he appointed her as head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987.

Joycelen became very outspoken about ensuring American children received proper health education, which included education related to their reproductive systems, which was met by resistance from more conservative and religious groups.

Fabio Balbi – stock.adobe.com – illustrative purposes only

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