Dr. Minnie “Joycelyn” Elders: Prescription for Healthy Communities

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Dr. Joycelyn Elders

Throughout March, the Democrats will present an ongoing blog series celebrating American women of distinction, both past and present. Staff members at the Democratic National Committee and several female leaders in the Democratic Party have been asked to write about influential women in our country’s history and leaders who continue making contributions today. 

Strong public health policy plays an important role in raising the visibility and profile of community health. This statement perfectly describes the career of Dr. Minnie “Joycelyn” Elders, who has an accomplished record of promoting wellness and prevention. Born in rural Arkansas, Elders was the first of eight children in a family of sharecroppers. At age 15, she earned a scholarship to attend Philander Smith College, a historically black liberal arts school in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was there she saw a doctor for the first time in her life and was inspired to become a physician herself.   

Graduating after only three years, Elders joined the Army, was trained in physical therapy, and served at Army hospitals in Texas, San Francisco, and Denver. In 1956 she entered the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock on the GI Bill, and in 1960 she was the only woman in her graduating class. She continued breaking ground for women in both medicine and academia by rising to chief pediatric resident at the Arkansas Medical Center in 1963. In 1967 she joined the faculty of the University of Mississippi.

Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton appointed Elders Arkansas director of public health in 1987. She pioneered community engagement in preventive health and excelled at creating a public dialogue on difficult issues, such as her project to reduce the level of teen pregnancy through availability of birth control, counseling, and sex education at school-based clinics. Under her leadership, between 1988 and 1992, the state achieved a ten-fold increase in early childhood screenings and a 24 percent rise in the immunization rate for two-year-olds. She also increased the availability of breast cancer screenings at public clinics and around-the-clock care for elderly and terminally ill patients.

On the strength of these achievements, President Clinton nominated Elders to the post of U.S. surgeon general in 1993—the second women to hold the post. As the chief U.S. medical officer, she played an important part of efforts to reorganize the health care system, and she regularly urged the public to consider unorthodox solutions to public health problems. Elders championed increased access to preventive health and advocated additional resources for issues affecting women, disadvantaged communities, and rural communities.

Speaking about the importance of involving the community in public health, Elders said:

“If I could make any changes at all to the current health care system, you know I would start with education, education, education. You can educate people that are not healthy. But you certainly can't keep them healthy if they're not educated.”

What I remember most about Elders is her willingness to challenge conventional thinking in the face of the AIDS epidemic, which began with her expanding the availability of HIV testing and counseling services in Arkansas. As surgeon general, she challenged the black church to become more active in honest discussions about HIV transmission and prevention. She also challenged the community to make smart decisions about HIV prevention and pushed campaigns to get people to know their HIV status.

We celebrate Elders for increasing the visibility and profile of public health issues. By challenging the establishment and focusing on prevention, not politics, Elders helped to focus on the issue and not the individual. Prevention was the core ingredient in Elders’ prescription for healthy communities. Today we all benefit from her leadership, dedication, and engagement.