Black History Month: Dr. Jane Cooke Wright

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was a pioneer in chemotherapeutic agents and helped revolutionize cancer research.

JaneWright

She was born on November 20, 1919, to Dr. Louis T. Wright and Corinne Cooke.

The Wright family had a strong history of academic achievement in medicine. Her paternal grandfather was born into slavery, and after the Civil War earned his M.D. at Meharry Medical College. Her step-grandfather was Dr. William Fletcher Penn, the first African American to graduate from Yale Medical College. And Jane’s father, Louis Tompkins Wright, MD, FACS, was among the first black students to earn an M.D. from Harvard Medical School as well as the first African-American doctor appointed to a public hospital in New York City. He went on to found the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital in NYC in 1947, and was a renowned cancer scientist and surgeon.

“What the Negro physician needs is equal opportunity for training and practice—no more, nor less.”

– Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright

Dr. Jane Wright attended Smith College and earned a full scholarship to study medicine at New York Medical College. She graduated with honors in 1945, as part of an accelerated three-year program. She interned at Bellevue Hospital and completed her surgical residency at Harlem Hospital in 1948.

In 1949 Dr. Wright joined her father at the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital, where they began research on potential chemotherapeutic agents. Chemotherapy was still mostly experimental at that time. At Harlem Hospital her father had already re-directed the focus of foundation research to investigating anti-cancer chemicals. Dr. Louis Wright worked in the lab and Dr. Jane Wright would perform the patient trials. In 1949, the two began testing a new chemical on human leukemia and cancers of the lymphatic system. Several patients who participated in the trials had some remission. Following Dr. Louis Wright’s death in 1952, Dr. Jane Wright was appointed head of the Cancer Research Foundation, at the age of 33.

In 1955, Dr. Wright became an associate professor of surgical research at NYU and director of cancer chemotherapy research at NYU Medical Center and its affiliated Bellevue and University hospitals. She pioneered efforts in utilizing patient tumor biopsies for drug testing, to help select drugs that may work specifically against a particular tumor, and she was the first to identify methotrexate—one of the foundational chemotherapy drugs—as an effective tool against cancerous tumors.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. Based on the Commission’s report, a national network of treatment centers was established for these diseases. In 1967, she was named professor of surgery, head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and associate dean at New York Medical College, her alma mater.

At a time when African American women physicians numbered only a few hundred in the entire United States, Dr. Wright was the highest ranked African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution.

She was also the recipient of many awards, including the honorary Doctor of Medical Sciences degree from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Wright retired in 1985 and was appointed emerita professor at New York Medical College in 1987. She died on February 19, 2013 at the age of 93.

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