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Third-generation Black woman physician makes cancer research history


 

When Jane Cooke Wright, MD, entered the medical profession in 1945, the notion that toxic drugs could target tumors struck many physicians and patients as outlandish. How could one poison be weaponized against another poison – a cancerous tumor – without creating more havoc? Let alone a combination of two or more chemicals?

Yet by the time Dr. Wright retired in 1987, chemotherapy treatments that she’d helped develop were routinely saving lives. In fact, she’d played key roles in the development of oncology, a new medical specialty, and of its most powerful agent to combat disease and death.

courtesy of the Wright family

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013), ASCO founder and pioneering cancer researcher

Dr. Wright’s story would be extraordinary enough if she’d looked like most of her colleagues, but this surgeon and researcher stood apart. An African American woman at a time when medicine and science – like politics and law – were almost entirely the domain of White men, Dr. Wright had determination in her blood. Her father, once honored by a crowd of dignitaries that included a First Lady, persevered despite his horrific encounters with racism. She shared her father’s commitment to progress and added her own personal twists. She balanced elegance and beauty with scientific savvy, fierce ambition, and a refusal to be defined by anything other than her accomplishments.

“She didn’t focus on race, not at all,” her daughter Alison Jones, PhD, a psychologist in East Lansing, Mich., said in an interview. “Wherever she was, she wanted to be the best, not the best Black person. It was not about how she performed in a category, and she would get upset if someone said she was good as a Black physician.”

On the road to being the best, Dr. Jones said, her mother set a goal of curing cancer. National Cancer Research Month is a fitting opportunity to look back on a scientist dedicated to bringing humanity closer to that elusive achievement.

Medical legacy blazed in toil and trauma

A strong case could be made that Dr. Jane C. Wright and her father Louis Tompkins Wright, MD, are the most accomplished father-and-daughter team in all of medicine.

The elder Dr. Wright, son of a formerly enslaved man turned physician and a stepson of the first African American to graduate from Yale University, New Haven, Conn., himself graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1915. He earned a Purple Heart while serving in World War I, then went on to become the first Black surgeon to join the staff at Harlem Hospital.

Dr. Wright, who had witnessed mob violence and the aftermath of a lynching as a young man, became a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance and a prominent advocate for civil rights and integration. He served as chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was only the second Black member of the American College of Surgeons.

According to the 2009 book “Black Genius: Inspirational Portraits of African American Leaders,” he successfully treated the rare but devastating venereal disease lymphogranuloma venereum with a new antibiotic developed by his former colleague Yellapragada SubbaRow, MD. Dr. Wright even tried the drug himself, “as a lot of doctors in the olden days did,” according to another of his daughters, the late Barbara Wright Pierce, MD, who was quoted in “Black Genius.” She, too, was a physician.

In 1948, Dr. Jane C. Wright joined her father at Harlem Hospital’s Cancer Research Foundation. There the duo explored the cancer-fighting possibilities of a nitrogen mustard–like chemical agent that had been known since World War I to kill white blood cells. Ironically, Dr. Louis Wright himself suffered lifelong health problems because of an attack from the poisonous gas phosgene during his wartime service.

“Remissions were observed in patients with sarcoma, Hodgkin disease, and chronic myelogenous leukemia, mycosis fungoides, and lymphoma,” reported a 2013 obituary in the journal Oncology of the younger Dr. Wright. “They also performed early research into the clinical efficacy and toxicity of folic acid antagonists, documenting responses in 93 patients with various forms of incurable blood cancers and solid tumors.”

This research appears in a study that was authored by three Dr. Wrights – Dr. Louis T. Wright and his daughters Jane and Barbara.

“The elder Dr. Wright died in 1952, just months after 1,000 people – including Eleanor Roosevelt – honored him at a dinner to dedicate a Harlem Hospital library named after him. He was 61.

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