Ruth Janetta Temple was born in Natchez, Mississippi on Nov. 1, 1892. She was the second child of Amy Morton and Richard Jason Temple and had five living siblings and two others who died young.
Her parents were both well-educated. Her father was a graduate of Denison University in Ohio and the University of Chicago, where he earned a bachelor of divinity in 1887 and became a Baptist minister. Her mother held a teaching degree from Shaw University in North Carolina. They believed in the value of education for their children and their neighbors, often opening their vast personal library to community members for research.
The philosophy of humanism—which places the emphasis in life on the potential value/goodness of people over the divine or supernatural and seeks rational ways to solve problems—guided the family’s moral code. Her father sought to make their home into a place where people of all faiths were welcome. He once said, “”People will come into our house. All people, all kinds of people, of all race, all creeds, all colors, and all educational backgrounds. Our children will learn love before they learn hate.” Ruth’s mother agreed and often brought those less fortunate to their home to give them food and clothing.
When Ruth was 10, her father died suddenly, leaving her heartbroken, as the two were very close. Two years later her family moved to Los Angeles. The children had previously been homeschooled by their mother, but she had to go back to work to provide for them. Her teaching license wasn’t valid in California, so she became a nurse.
With her mother away at work, Ruth went to public school and cared for her siblings. When she was 13, Ruth witnessed her brother’s frightening brush with death when a gunpowder experiment went wrong and blew up in his face. He ended up with only a singed eyebrow, but she found her calling: to take away the pain of others. Later, she recalled, “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’.”
The Temple family converted to Seventh-day Adventism in 1908 and co-founded the Furlong Track Church, the first Black Seventh-day Adventist church west of the Mississippi. Ruth’s mother spent the next 21 years as a Bible Instructor and went on in 1914 to help found the Watts church, the second black Adventist Church in Los Angeles (now the Compton Avenue church).
In 1908, Ruth transferred to San Fernando Academy, an Adventist boarding school, where she studied pre-med. In 1913, Ruth enrolled in the College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda University). The family couldn’t afford the tuition, but T.W. Troy, a prominent member of the Los Angeles Forum, a black men’s civic organization, had heard Ruth speak and was so impressed, he sponsored her education. Ruth was the first Black woman to graduate from the school in 1918; she got a bachelor’s in medicine and became the first Black female physician licensed to practice in the state of California.
Soon after, she returned to Los Angeles and focused on creating public health services for the medically underserved. Dr. Temple opened the first health clinic in southeast Los Angeles. However, she struggled to find funding for the clinic. In 1908, she married Otis Banks, a real estate broker. Together, they bought a house from which they ran their clinic, Temple Health Institute. There they provided free medical services as well as health education to parents, teachers, and schoolkids, including frank discussions of substance abuse, immunization, nutrition and sex education. This model was later duplicated in communities across the nation in schools, PTAs, YWCAs, churches, synagogues, service agencies, private medical practices, study clubs, and local health organizations.
From 1923-1928, Dr. Temple held an internship in maternity service at the Los Angeles Health Department. Later she was one of only a few Black people on the teaching staff of White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles where she taught white medical students. In 1941, the Los Angeles Health Department awarded her a scholarship to pursue her master’s degree in public health at Yale University. Dr. Temple worked for the Health Department from 1942-1962, where she was the first female health officer in the city. She was also a member of the American Medical Association, the Women’s University Club, the California Medical Association, the California Congress of Parents and Teachers, and Alpha Kappa Alpha.
In 1948, a portrait of Dr. Temple became the 35th in a special exhibit of “Leading American Negro Citizens” at the Smithsonian. Her work was recognized by Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and several mayors of Los Angeles and other cities, as well as Dr. Milford Rouse, president of the American Medical Association.
Dr. Temple retired in 1962, but continued to work in public health through the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, as director of health services. She spread the word about the benefits of diet, exercise, rest, recreation, and spirituality and promoted Disease Prevention Week, which she had created in 1945. By 1977, it had been introduced as a joint resolution in Congress twice and health care facilities around California were celebrating it in March.
In 1983 the East Los Angeles Health Center was renamed the Dr. Ruth Temple Health Center. She died the following year in Los Angeles at the age of 91.