Minnie Joycelyn Jones was born in Schaal, Arkansas in 1933 to sharecropper parents. She and her seven younger siblings often worked in the cotton fields, frequently missing school, primarily during harvest time, September to December. Joycelyn Jones entered Philander Smith College, an historically Black college in Little Rock, AR, at the age of 15 on a scholarship from United Methodist Church. Graduating in only three years, she joined the U.S. Army and trained in physical therapy in Houston, TX. In 1956, she enrolled in the University of Arkansas Medical School on the GI Bill. Four years later, she was the only woman to graduate from the school, earning her medical degree. 1960 was also the year that she married Oliver Elders.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders completed her training and earned a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Arkansas in 1967. She joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Medicine as a clinician and researcher in pediatric endocrinology.
In 1993, Dr. Joycelyn Elders was appointed the 15th Surgeon General of the U.S., becoming the first African American and the second woman in the role. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton, who, as Governor, had appointed Dr. Elders as head of the Arkansas Department of Health from 1987-1992. Dr. Elders served as Surgeon General for 15 months, and in 1995 returned to the University of Arkansas as a faculty researcher and professor of pediatric endocrinology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Elders wrote her autobiography (with David Chanoff) in 1996, entitled Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America. She is now Professor Emerita at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. Her recent work includes advocating for more Black physicians in the medical field.