Here are some pint-sized facts about the world’s most famous pint-sized sex therapist.
- Karola Ruth Siegel (Westheimer is her married name) was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany in 1928. At age 12, Ruth was sent to safety at an orphanage in Switzerland. She never saw her family again; her parents are believed to have been killed at Auschwitz.
- At age 16, she made her way to Palestine, joined a military organization, and trained to be a sniper. Her military career was cut short at age 20 when an artillery shell hit her Jerusalem dormitory. Ruth was so badly injured that doctors believed she might never walk again. But she recovered, and went to Paris to study psychology at the Sorbonne. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 and took a job at a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City. At first, her colleague’s frank discussions about women’s health issues shocked her but, eventually, they inspired her to pursue a new career. Her post-doctoral work in human sexuality led her to open her own practice in 1975.
- Five years later, Betty Elam, an executive at New York City radio station WYNY, was faced with finding new talent after a switch to an all-talk format. She heard Ruth speak at a convention and was impressed with her ability to intelligently discuss a sensitive subject with warmth, honesty and, humor. In Sept. 1980, Dr. Ruth began hosting Sexually Speaking, a 15-minute show on Sunday nights at midnight.
- Audiences loved Dr. Ruth, in part because of her novelty—a woman in her 50s, speaking confidently and frankly about a taboo subject, and in a high-pitched German accent. (The Wall Street Journal described Ruth’s voice as a “cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse.”) The diminutive doctor (she’s 4’7”) quickly became a cultural juggernaut.
- Sexually Speaking was extended to an hour so Dr. Ruth could take calls from listeners. Within a few years, 78 radio stations across America were broadcasting the show. Dr. Ruth spent the ‘80s hosting the show and writing a syndicated newspaper advice column, as well as writing books, producing a Dr. Ruth board game, and making countless talk show appearances. On The Tonight Show, she jokingly told Johnny Carson, “You are responsible for the problems Americans have in their bedroom. They stay up to watch you and then they are too tired!”
- Dr. Ruth is widely credited for ushering in an era of freer, and more honest discussion of sexuality. This is especially important as Dr. Ruth’s rise to fame occurred at the same time as the early AIDS crisis. In 2009, Playboy placed Dr. Ruth at #13 on its list of “The 55 Most Important People in Sex From the Past 55 Years.”