As I sat down to write this introduction to my interview with Dr. Minnie Joycelyn Elders, former surgeon general of the United States and lifelong advocate for universal health care, politicians in the Senate had just voted to consider legislation that would have stripped health services from millions of Americans. The proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act — the 2010 law that expanded health coverage and struck down restrictions that kept many people from receiving routine care due to preexisting conditions — would have affected people who rely on assistance from Medicaid, Medicare, and the low-cost-insurance marketplaces made possible by the ACA.
These rollbacks were just one skirmish in the epic fight for a healthier, more just society. In the 1980s and '90s, Dr. Elders was on the front lines. As director of the Arkansas Department of Health from 1987 to 1992, she campaigned for more clinics and better education, resulting in an increase in childhood immunizations and a reduction in teen pregnancy, as well as an expansion in prenatal care. As surgeon general from 1993 to 1994 — she was the first black person to hold that position — Dr. Elders and her progressive ideas about reproductive health, sex education, and prison reform came under constant fire from social conservatives. She used her national platform to promote sex education (a matter of life and death at the peak of the AIDS crisis) as well as reforming drug laws. The Clinton White House forced her to resign under Republican pressure when she suggested that speaking to children about masturbation should be part of health curricula. Afterward, Dr. Elders did not waver from her mission: she returned to her alma mater, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, to teach pediatrics, and has continued in the years since to advocate for the expansion of health services and education, drug and prison reform, and diversity in the medical sciences.
For the woman who once said that young girls of color who cannot access care are "captive to a slavery the 13th Amendment did not anticipate," health care has always been a human-rights issue. These days, when it starts to feel like so many Americans are afflicted by a callous disregard for the health of their fellow human beings, I feel grateful for people like Dr. Elders who have yet to give up despite the obstacles they've faced in their work. I was honored to speak to her over the phone on a recent summer afternoon.
Rose Lichter-Marck: How did you first get involved in public health?
Dr. Joycelyn Elders: I grew up on a farm in a three-room shack. I was the oldest of eight children. We were very poor. We didn't have running water. We didn't have electricity, so we didn't have TV or radio. No one had health care. There were no health facilities for miles and miles. The first time I saw a doctor was when I was a freshman in college. So I couldn't grow up wanting to go into public health, or even wanting to be a doctor, because I'd never even heard of that. You can't be what you can't see!
RLM: When did you realize that you could be a doctor?
DJE: When I was a freshman in college, Dr. Edith Irby Jones, the first black person to attend the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, came to speak at my school, Philander Smith College, and she talked about her own aspirations. She was still a medical student at the time. After I heard her speak, the only thing I could think of was that I wanted to be just like her. Whatever I had to do to do that was what I was going to do. So I worked to become a pediatric endocrinologist.