Public health advocate Dr. Ruth Temple helped to bring healthcare to the public. Temple was the second eldest of six children born to a Baptist preacher father and a homemaker in Mississippi. Her parents instilled a love for education and humanism at an early age. At age 10, things turned upside down when her father suddenly died. Following his death, the family moved to Los Angeles, where her mother studied nursing. At age 13, she tended to her older brother after a gunpowder explosion, sparking her interest in medicine.

Her family helped to found the first Black Seventh-Day Adventist church in the West. One of the founders, Theodore Troy, heard of her medical aspirations and invited her to speak at the political organization Los Angeles Forum. Her speech captured the organization’s attention, which led to the members bestowing her with a five-year scholarship to Loma Linda University. She became the first Black female graduate of the prestigious medical school. The practicing physician went on to intern at the Los Angeles City Health Department, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. Working in the LA area (especially in Southeast LA) led to her taking a keen interest in public health after a traumatic experience with an infant.

Temple created the first health clinic to provide underserved southeast Los Angelenos. She and her husband, Otis Banks, converted their home into the Temple Health Institute. At the same time, she implemented the Health Study Club program to educate adults and children on health and health-related issues. After a few years, the LA Health Department awarded her a scholarship to Yale University School, where she received her master’s degree in public health. After completing her degree, she became the first female health officer as the Director of Special Health Services.

Her time at the agency was fruitful as Temple spearheaded LA’s Community Health Week, where good health initiatives were at the forefront. She began teaching at the White Memorial Hospital for several years. After being with the LA Health Department for two decades, she retired from the agency in 1962. The beloved practitioner was appointed the director of the Health Education Department for the Pacific Union, becoming the first Black person and woman to do so.

In her later years, Temple continued working in public health as she continued her efforts with Community Health Week. In 1983, Los Angeles renamed the East Los Angeles Health Center to the Dr. Ruth Temple Health Center to honor her impact on medical and public health services. She passed away at age 91 in 1984.

Dr. Ruth Temple made public health service her mission. Fortunately, her mission has continued as most areas – from rural towns to big cities – have health clinics that cater to the underserved. Her model is still used to this day. Her contributions as a public health advocate and leader changed the look and approach of healthcare. So, I say, “Dr. Temple, thank you for making sure everyone had proper healthcare.”

…at that time I thought that women were nurses. I didn’t know they were doctors. When I learned that women were doctors, I said `Ah, that’s what I want to be’.

Ruth Temple