Minnie Lee Jones was born in Schaal, Howard County, Arkansas, on August 13, 1933. In college, she changed her name to Joycelyn.
She enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1953 and worked as a physical therapist in the Army Medical Specialist Corps.
Elders graduated from the University of Arkansas Medical School in 1960. In 1976 she joined the faculty at UAMS as a professor of pediatrics. She became Arkansas’s Director of Public Health in 1987. Elders was appointed the 16th Surgeon General of the United States in 1993.