UAMS Unveils Portrait, Launches Endowment Campaign Honoring Former U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders

By Spencer Watson

The portrait was unveiled in a ceremony April 7 at UAMS at which it was also announced that UAMS is establishing the M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D., Professorship in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and continuing a campaign to raise the endowment to the level of an endowed chair.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, M.D., stands with Tom Bruce, M.D., inaugural dean of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, at the unveiling of the portrait commissioned in her honor by the college’s advisory council.

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

Elders, a UAMS emeritus professor of pediatrics and distinguished professor of public health, was appointed U.S. surgeon general by President Bill Clinton and served from 1993-1994. She was the first African-American, second woman and first Arkansan appointed to the post.

The portrait by artist A.J. Smith will hang in a historical display in the UAMS College of Medicine along with photographs and artifacts of Elders’ life, many on loan from her.

“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,” said Tom Bruce, M.D., inaugural dean of the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health.

A professorship is created with gifts totaling $500,000, which is invested and the income used by the holder of the professorship for academic research or clinical initiatives. A chair is created with gifts totaling $1 million or more.

“The creation of this endowed position is first and foremost a wonderful way to recognize Dr. Elders and her lifetime commitment to the health of every Arkansan,” said UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn, M.D.

“Having an endowed chair would be a tremendous asset to both the College of Public Health and to Arkansas,” said Jim Raczynski, Ph.D., dean of the college. “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, highlighted Elders’ achievements, noting she overcame “all the cards an individual can have stacked against them” growing up poor, black and female in the rural South during a time when there were few protections for women or minorities.

“She truly epitomizes the American dream,” Beebe said.

Before being appointed surgeon general, she served as director of the Arkansas Department of Health from 1987-1993. 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.

Elders advocated for access to health care as a fundamental right. Her work as a pediatric endocrinologist led to her advocacy for adolescent health and reducing rates of substance abuse and pregnancy among teenagers. She continues to be a champion for the poor and disadvantaged, challenging leaders to acknowledge the evidence that there are socio-economic benefits in healthy communities.

Born in rural Schaal, Arkansas, in 1933, Elders was the oldest of eight children in a family of sharecroppers. At age 15, she graduated from high school as valedictorian. She then attended Philander Smith College, graduating in three years, followed by serving in the U.S. Army. In 1960, she graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine (now UAMS College of Medicine) and was the only woman in her graduating class.

After an internship at the University of Minnesota, Elders returned to UAMS to serve a pediatric residency, followed by a pediatric research fellowship. She earned a master’s degree in biochemistry from UAMS in 1967, then joined the pediatric faculty. In addition to her clinical practice, she conducted research in pediatric endocrinology, publishing more than 100 scientific papers.