She was fired mid-term in December 1994 amidst controversy. She is currently a professor emerita of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Early life and educationElders was born Minnie Lee Jones in Schaal, Arkansas,to a poor farm family, and was the eldest of eight children. In college, she changed her name to Minnie Joycelyn Lee. In 1952, she received her B.S. degree in Biology from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, Where she also pledged Delta Sigma Theta.After working as a nurse's aide in a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee for a period, she joined the United States Army in May 1953. During her 3 years in the Army, she was trained as a physical therapist. She then attended the University of Arkansas Medical School, where she obtained her M.D. degree in 1960. After completing an internship at the University of Minnesota Hospital and a residency in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, Elders earned an M.S. degree in Biochemistry in 1967.
Career and Tenure as U.S. Surgeon GeneralElders has received a National Institutes of Health career development award, also serving as assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center from 1967. She was promoted to associate professor in 1971 and professor in 1976. Her research interests focused on endocrinology, and she received board certification as a pediatric endocrinologist in 1978, becoming the first person in the state of Arkansas to do so. She became an expert on childhood sexual development. Elders received a D.Sc. degree from Bates College in 2002.
In 1987, then-Governor Bill Clinton appointed Elders as Director of the Arkansas Department of Health. Her accomplishments in this position included a tenfold increase in the number of early childhood screenings annually and almost a doubling of the immunization rate for two-year-olds in Arkansas. In 1992, she was elected President of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.
In January 1993, Bill Clinton appointed her the United States Surgeon General, making her the first African American and the second woman (following Antonia Novello) to hold the position. She was a controversial choice and a strong backer of the Clinton health care plan, so she was not confirmed until September 7, 1993. As surgeon general, Elders quickly established a reputation for controversy. Like many of the surgeons general before her, she was an outspoken advocate of a variety of health-related causes. She argued for an exploration of the possibility of drug legalization and backed the distribution of contraceptives in schools. President Clinton stood by Elders, saying that she was misunderstood.
Views on drug legalisationElders drew fire - and censure from the Clinton administration - when she suggested that legalizing drugs might help reduce crime and that the idea should be studied. On December 15, 1993, around one week after making these comments, charges were filed against her son Kevin, for selling cocaine in an incident involving undercover officers, four months prior. Elders believes the incident was a frame-up and the timing of the charges was designed to embarrass her and the president. Kevin Elders was convicted, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He appealed his conviction to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and that court reaffirmed the conviction. The court held that Mr. Elders failed to show that he was entrapped into making the narcotics sale. There was no further appeal.
Comments on human sexuality and terminationIn 1994, she was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS. She was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, and she replied, "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught." This remark caused great controversy and resulted in Elders losing the support of the White House. White House chief of staff Leon Panetta remarked, "There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many." Elders was fired by President Clinton as a result of the controversy in December 1994. Elders had previously made a number of other statements that put her in the public spotlight, like her quote in January 1994 "We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children."
Post-Governmental ActivitiesSince leaving her post as surgeon general, she has returned to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as professor of pediatrics, and is currently professor emerita at UAMS. She is a regular on the lecture circuit, speaking against teen pregnancy. She has appeared on TV in Penn and Teller: Bullshit! during the episode on abstinence, where she says that she considers abstinence-only programs to be child abuse and discusses her opinions on teenage sex education, masturbation and contraceptives.
Elders wrote a book in an attempt to present her side of the controversies that surrounded her during her 18-month tenure as surgeon general.
In an October 15, 2010 article she clearly voiced support for legalization of marijuana: