Dr. Jocelyn Elders endured a lot on her rise to becoming the first African American to be appointed Surgeon General of the United States.
She was born in 1933, the daughter of a poor sharecropper in a segregated community in rural Arkansas. As a child, she had to balance working in the cotton fields with attending an all-black elementary school 13 miles away. But she studied hard, made it through high school, and earned a scholarship to Philander Smith College, an all-black college in Little Rock.
After graduating, Elders served for several years in the United States Army’s Women’s Medical Specialist Corps. In 1956, she entered the Arkansas Medical School on the G.I. Bill, where she was the only black student and was required to eat in a separate dining room with the cleaning staff.
Elders persevered, obtained her M.D. degree in 1960, then a Masters in biochemistry in 1967. She became a respected professor, an expert in pediatric endocrinology and a pioneering researcher in childhood growth problems and juvenile diabetes.
In 1987, Dr. Elders became the Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, where her efforts led to major increases in early childhood screenings and immunizations.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her as the U.S. Surgeon General. Like many Surgeon Generals before her, Dr. Elders was outspoken on the need to address current health-related issues, such as the growing AIDS epidemic.
On December 1, 1994, she was a featured speaker at the United Nations-sponsored World AIDS Day conference in New York City.
In a Q&A session after her formal remarks, a conference participant asked her if it might be possible to reduce the spread of AIDS through “more explicit discussion...of masturbation,” as an alternative to heterosexual or homosexual sex.
Dr. Elders answered:
“I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught.”
Well! Omigod! That caused shock and awe! You’d have thought she’d said something really scandalous — like she thought it was OK for Presidents to have sexual affairs with young White House interns.
President Clinton decided that Dr. Elders’ remark about masturbation would cause an embarrassing media frenzy he didn’t want. So, he forced her to resign. His spokesman said he’d have fired her if she didn’t.
About a year later, Clinton started having a sexual affair with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, which created an embarrassing media frenzy that almost cost Clinton his presidency.
After that hubbub, Clinton’s decision to force Dr. Elders to resign seemed like an even lower blow than it did at the time. (So to speak.)