On November 1, 1892, Ruth Janetta Temple was born in Natchez, Mississippi to Richard Jason Temple and Amy Morton Temple. Richard Temple was a Baptist Preacher who was a dissertation short of earning a Ph.D. in ministry. Amy Temple was an educated woman who earned a degree from Shaw University. Because both of her parents were college graduates education was of most importance in the Temple household. Richard Temple also believed that his calling was to preach in the South and help bring people of all races together. He promised his wife that he would buy a house by the side of a road and use that house to serve and unite people. Mr. Temple made good on his promise and created “Templedale”, which was a 13-acre plot that housed the Temple family home and the First Baptist Church of Natchez, Mississippi. Mr. Temple was a community leader, and Mrs. Temple would feed and nurse any person of any race that was in need. Richard Temple passed away from an illness when Ruth was 10 years old, his family was devastated. As a result of Richard’s death, Amy Temple moved her family to Los Angles, California in 1904, she was never truly fond of living in the south.
As the Temple family were settling into their home in Los Aneles, Amy Temple decided to homeschool her children. She eventually found a nursing job to support her family, her children began attending public school, and Ruth gained the responsibility of helping her mother with her siblings. At the age of 13, Ruth’s brother Walter was playing with gun powder and a hose. The gun powder blew up in his face knocking him to the ground. Ruth’s mother panicked. Ruth ran to her brother and began to help him. While caring for her brother she realized two things, her brother was not seriously injured, and she had a passion for becoming a doctor. A short time later, Ruth’s neighbor Ernie Fennell fell into an oil ditch and was carried almost a mile by the current. When he was pulled out of the ditch he was covered in oil and not breathing. Ruth performed CPR on Ernie and saved his life. This second event was further confirmation to Ruth that she was destined to become a doctor. Her belief in herself was strong even though many people told her that she couldn’t become a doctor because she was a girl and because she was black. But Ruth did not allow the opinions of others to distract her from her goal.
The Temple family became acquainted with the Troy family, Theodore and Juilette Troy. The Troy family was fond of Ruth and believed in her brilliance and grit. They knew she wanted to study medicine but could not afford to pay for college. In 1913, Ruth was an invited guest speaker for the Los Angles Forum, a political organization founded by black people in Los Angles. Ruth’s speech was spectacular, so spectacular that Theodore Troy stood up and made a motion to the organization to pay for Ruth’s education so she could become a doctor. The organization unanimously agreed with Theodore. With Ruth’s college tuition being paid for she enrolled in what is now Loma Linda University in 1913. She was one of the very few black students attending Loma Linda and became the first black woman to graduate from the university in 1918. After graduating college, Ruth began working in the underserved and poverty-stricken areas of Southeast Los Angeles. During this time, she learned much about the people she was serving, their living conditions, the culture of the people she was serving, and how to better serve them medically. With her education and working experience, she gained an internship at the Los Angeles County Health Department in 1921. During her internship, she learned the business of health care and how to operate a health clinic. She not only interned at the L.A. Health Department but she was a practicing physician at Loma Linda’s pediatric clinic. This experience piques her interest in obstetrics and gynecology.
As a practicing physician for Loma Linda’s pediatric clinic, she helped to deliver hundreds of babies and was able to serve members of L.A.’s underserved community. Los Angeles experienced an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1924, many people in the city were afraid of the plague because of how it devastated Europe in medieval times. Dr. Temple, being a levelheaded and experienced physician, developed a three-step method that was implemented to eradicate the plague. The three-step method was as follows: 1. Acquire basic health knowledge, 2. Put the knowledge to practice, 3. Share the knowledge with others. Her method helped many people learn more about the plague, which eventually eliminated the plague. The plague never resurfaced in Los Angeles again. Dr. Temple was introduced to her friend’s uncle Mr. Otis Banks, a real estate broker. The two became a couple and eventually married in 1918. Later in 1928, Dr. Temple and Otis opened the first medical clinic in the medically underserved area of Southeast Los Angeles, The Temple Health Institute. Dr. Temple and Otis were so dedicated to the mission that they lived in the medical clinic, and when there was no room to sleep in the building, they slept in their chicken coop. In addition to the health clinic, Dr. Temple founded the “Healthy Study Club,” an organization dedicated to teaching health literacy to the people of Southeast Los Angeles. She witnessed a baby die because of a lack of education and resources, so she created the “Healthy Stay Club” so no other babies or people died because of a lack of information or care.
During an STD outbreak in 1941, Dr. Temple’s Healthy Study Club implemented STD testing and education at the two of the local nightclubs where most of the people with the STDs frequented. The Healthy Study Club was so successful that chapters of the club spread throughout Los Angeles, helping to improve the education and health of the people of Los Angeles. 1941 is also the year that Los Angeles appointed Dr. Temple as its first public health officer, and the Los Angeles County Health Department paid for Dr. Temple to earn a Master’s degree in public health from Yale University. Dr. Temple graduated with her Master’s degree and was an honors student. She was also fortunate to learn from one of the founders of the public health field, C.E.A. Winslow. The Healthy Study Club became the Total Health Program, and Dr. Temple was armed with much more knowledge and experience. Because of her excellent work, Dr. Temple became the director of the Division of Public Health for the city of Los Angeles in 1948. She also became one of the founders and the medical director of the Community Health Week for Los Angeles. Dr. Ruth Temple became a medical icon in Los Angeles. She received several commendations from Ronald Regan, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. One of the biggest acknowledgments of her iconic career was the renaming of the East Los Angeles Health Center to the Dr. Ruth temple Health Center. During a polio outbreak in the 1950s, Dr. Temple’s three-step method was once again used, which suppressed the polio outbreak.
Dr. Temple retired from her public health work in 1962. In 1963, she became the first black woman director of the Health Education Department for the Pacific Union. Dr. Ruth Temple is a true trailblazer and a real example of determination. Despite many people telling her what she could not do, she not only became a physician, but she became a public health and medical icon in the city of Los Angeles. She saw that her community lacked the proper medical resources. Instead of complaining and expecting others the help her community, she stepped up and built a medical clinic for her people. If we do not take care of ourselves, no one else will. To the iconic Dr. Ruth Janetta Temple, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
J. A. Ward.
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