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UAMS Honors Former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders

M. Joycelyn Elders M D with her husband Oliver Elders

Joycelyn Elders, MD, and her husband, “Coach” Elders

Former US Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, MD, was honored April 7 at a reception at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), at which a portrait of her, commissioned by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, was unveiled.

At the event, it was announced that UAMS is establishing the M. Joycelyn Elders, MD, endowed Professorship in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health (COPH), with plans to raise the endowment to the level of a chair.

“I love this school,” Dr. Elders said. “It made me who I am and allowed me to climb the ladder of success. I’ve watched it evolve from one building to what it is today, and I’m very proud.”

The portrait by Little Rock artist AJ Smith will hang in a historical display at UAMS along with photographs and artifacts from Elders’ life, many on loan from her.

Dr. Elders, a UAMS Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics and a Distinguished Professor of Health Policy and Management at the COPH, was appointed US Surgeon General by President Bill Clinton and served from 1993 to 1994. She was the first African American, second woman and first Arkansans appointed to the post.

“Quite simply, Dr. Joycelyn Elders is the most distinguished person to have ever been at this institution and will be remembered for all time for her remarkable achievements,” Tom Bruce, MD, inaugural Dean of the COPH and former Dean of the UAMS College of Medicine, said.

The professorship will be created with gifts totaling $500,000, which will be invested, with income used by the holder of the professorship for research or clinical initiatives.

“Having an endowed chair would be a tremendous asset to both the College of Public Health and to Arkansas,” Jim Raczynski, PhD, COPH Dean, said. “It will help UAMS in attracting talented senior leadership and supporting their work in an increasingly competitive environment among schools of public health.”

Former Gov. Mike Beebe, who attended the portrait unveiling, noted that Dr. Elders beat “all the cards that could be stacked against an individual,” having grown up in the rural South during a time of limited opportunity for minorities or women. “She truly epitomizes the American dream.”

Before being appointed Surgeon General, Dr. Elders served as Director of the Arkansas Department of Health from 1987 to 1993, under Gov. Bill Clinton. During her tenure, she nearly doubled childhood immunization rates, expanded the state’s prenatal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically and terminally ill.

Born in rural Schaal, Ark., in 1933, Dr. Elders was the oldest of eight children in a family of sharecroppers. At age 15, she graduated from high school as valedictorian and attended Philander Smith College on a scholarship and graduated in three years. She then served in the US Army. In 1956, she enrolled in the University of Arkansas School of Medicine (now UAMS College of Medicine) and was the third African American to do so. In 1960, she was the only woman in her graduating class.

Dr. Elders continued breaking ground in 1963 by becoming the Chief Pediatric Resident at the University Hospital in Little Rock. She also completed a research fellowship in pediatrics and earned a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, and then joined the pediatric faculty there. Although always active in clinical practice, she conducted research in pediatric endocrinology, publishing more than 100 scientific papers.

In many ways, Dr. Elders was ahead of her time, advocating for access to health care as a fundamental right. She once said, “I think it is time for us to ask the question ‘Do we feel that every American should have a right to health care?’ In our society, we feel that every criminal has a right to a lawyer. Shouldn’t we feel that every sick person has the right to a doctor?’”

Today, Dr. Elders continues to live a life of service to others, a champion for the poor and disadvantaged, challenging leaders to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that there are socio-economic benefits derived from a healthy population and healthy communities.