Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders has received the 2017 Dr. Tom Bruce Arkansas Health Impact Award from the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.
“Elders has spent her life blazing trails and advocating fearlessly for public health,” said Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO for ACHI and former Arkansas surgeon general. “From breaking down societal barriers as an African-American woman navigating medical education to defying convention with her outspoken stances as a top-level healthcare official, Dr. Elders has been an inspiring example of the enormous positive impact one person can have on her state and the nation.”
Elders received the award in a ceremony Monday at the Robinson Center in Little Rock. Recipients of the award are those who embody “the late Dr. Tom Bruce’s lifetime of service by demonstrating courageous leadership and a sustained record as a catalyst for improving the health of all Arkansans and who exemplifies the core values of ACHI: trust, commitment, innovation and initiative,” according to a news release.
Elders was born in Howard County, Ark., and raised in a sharecropping family. The eldest of eight children, she spent “much of her childhood working in cotton fields,” the release shows. She was the first in her family to attend college and graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1952. She joined the Army’s Medical Specialist Corps in 1953 and was trained as a physical therapist. She attended the University of Arkansas Medical School on the G.I. Bill and earned a medical degree in 1960.
She started as assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science in 1967. She was promoted to associate professor and professor, in 1971 and 1976, respectively. In 1978, she became the first person in Arkansas to become a board certified pediatric endocrinologist. In 1987, she was appointed as director of the Arkansas Department of Health and was the first African-American woman in the position. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her as U.S. surgeon general, and she was the first African American woman and second woman after Dr. Antonia Novello to serve in the position.
Issues Elders focused on included tobacco-related disease, AIDS, alcohol and drug abuse and teen pregnancy. “She drew praise and controversy for taking bold stands on such topics as sex education and contraception,” the release shows. In December 1994, she resigned as U.S. surgeon general and returned to UAMS, where she is professor emeritus of pediatrics. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Elders is the second person to receive the Health Impact Award. In 2016, the first person to receive it was Dr. Joseph H. Bates, deputy state health officer and chief science officer with the Arkansas Department of Health and professor of epidemiology and associate dean of the College of Public Health at UAMS.
Elders and her husband, Oliver, have two children, Eric and Kevin.