Ruth Westheimer

German-American sex therapist
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Also known as: Dr. Ruth, Karola Ruth Siegel
Dr. Ruth
Dr. Ruth
June 4, 1928 (age 95) Germany

Ruth Westheimer, byname Dr. Ruth, original name Karola Ruth Siegel, (born June 4, 1928, Wiesenfeld, Germany), German American sex therapist who became one of the most trusted authorities on sex and relationships in the United States through her radio call-in program, television talk shows, and numerous books and media appearances. Her frank yet nonjudgmental manner combined with her diminutive stature and strong German accent helped to make her a pop culture celebrity in the 1980s.

Westheimer was the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents, who settled in Frankfurt am Main when she was one year old. When she was 10, her father was seized by the Nazis after Kristallnacht in November 1938, the year prior to the start of World War II (1939–45), and taken to a labour camp. Westheimer remained with her mother and grandmother but was soon sent to Switzerland, where she lived in an orphanage for Jewish refugee children. She remained there for the rest of the war and never saw her family again. Later, she learned her parents had been killed in the Holocaust.

In 1945 Westheimer emigrated from Switzerland to Palestine, where she began going by her middle name, Ruth. She worked as an agricultural labourer in a kibbutz (a collective settlement) and eventually moved to Jerusalem to study early childhood education. In Jerusalem she joined the Haganah, an underground Zionist military organization, and became a scout and sniper. In 1948, on her 20th birthday, she was severely wounded when a bomb exploded at her kibbutz.

In 1950 Westheimer married an Israeli soldier from her kibbutz. They moved to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne while her husband studied medicine. They divorced after five years, and Westheimer used her restitution money from the West German government to emigrate to the United States. She settled in New York City and attended classes at The New School for Social Research while working as a housemaid and raising her daughter from a brief second marriage. In 1961 Westheimer married her third husband, engineer and fellow Jewish refugee Manfred Westheimer, with whom she had a son. She also became a U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, after earning a master’s in sociology from The New School in 1959, Westheimer worked as a research assistant at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she earned a doctorate in education in 1970. During that time, she worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Harlem, an experience that spurred her to further her studies in human sexuality. She applied to study under pioneering sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan at Cornell University, with whom she trained for seven years.

In 1980 Westheimer was hired for a weekly 15-minute radio show in New York called Sexually Speaking. The show was taped and aired after midnight on Sunday evenings. Its success soon led to a live hour-long call-in program. By 1984 the show had been syndicated nationally, and Westheimer had become known as “Dr. Ruth.”

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Her manner of discussing sex and relationships without euphemisms and her willingness to answer questions on all topics made her both a trusted and sometimes controversial figure. With her matronly appearance, cheerful personality, heavily accented speech, and small stature—standing at 4 feet 7 inches (1.4 metres)—she presented an intriguing image for a sex expert.

She quickly became a pop culture icon, appearing in films and commercials and on television game shows and sitcoms, almost always playing herself, regardless of context. Her celebrity did not detract from her authority when speaking on many taboo topics, in particular homosexuality, female orgasms, abortion, masturbation, contraception, and AIDS prevention, or “safe sex.”

Westheimer’s advice-giving expanded to television talk shows and books. In 1989 The All New Dr. Ruth Show received an Ace Award for excellence in cable television. She published more than 40 books, beginning with Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex in 1983 and including Sex for Dummies (1995), The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre (2015), and Stay or Go: Dr. Ruth’s Rules for Real Relationships (2018). She also wrote a pregnancy book for couples, a guide for caregivers of patients with Alzheimer disease, books for children and teens about sex and relationships, and whimsical picture books. Her autobiography, All in a Lifetime, was published in 1987.

Westheimer served as an executive producer on several television documentaries, including Surviving Salvation (1992), about Ethiopian Jews, and The Olive and the Tree: The Secret Strength of the Druze (2006). A one-woman play based on Westheimer’s life, Becoming Dr. Ruth, by Mark St. Germain, debuted in 2012 and moved to Off-Broadway. A documentary film, Ask Dr. Ruth, directed by Ryan White, was released in 2019.

She lectured widely and held fellowships at Yale, Princeton, and the New York Academy of Medicine. She was awarded honorary doctorates from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Lehman College–City University of New York, Trinity College (in Hartford, Connecticut), and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (in Israel).

In 1986 Westheimer was awarded the Liberty Medal, which recognizes immigrants who have made major contributions to New York City and the United States. She received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2002 and the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Services from Columbia University in 2006. In 2013 she was awarded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Margaret Sanger Award, and in 2019 she was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

René Ostberg