Dr. Elders became surgeon general of the Public Health Service on September 8, 1993, appointed by President Bill Clinton. The first African American to serve as surgeon general, Elders argued the case for universal health coverage and was a spokesperson for President Clinton's healthcare reform effort. During her term as surgeon general, Dr. Elders was outspoken in her advocacy for comprehensive health education, including sex education in schools. In 1995, she returned to the University of Arkansas Medical Center as professor of pediatrics. She holds a B.A. in biology from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR, and an M.D. from the University of Arkansas Medical School, where she completed her residency in pediatrics. She also holds an M.S. in biochemistry.
Elders began her career as a nurse's aide in a veterans' hospital in Milwaukee until she enlisted in the Army in May, 1953. She was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, where she was the only black person in her class. She was stationed at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, treating returning combat wounded from the Korean War. In April, 1954, Elders was licensed as a physical therapist and transferred to Fitzsimmons Hospital in Denver. She was one of two therapists who treated President Eisenhower after his heart attack.
In 1987, Elders was appointed director of the Arkansas Department of Health by then-Governor Clinton. Her accomplishments in this position included a tenfold increase in the number of early childhood screenings annually and a near-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.