Wright, Jane Cooke

Jane Cooke Wright

American physician Jane Cooke Wright (born 1919) was a prominent twentieth-century cancer researcher. The daughter of a prominent physician, Jane Cooke Wright followed her father into medicine and eventually became the highest-ranked African-American woman at a major medical institution. Her contributions to the nascent field of chemotherapy have led some to call her “the Mother of Chemotherapy.”

Born Into a Medical Family

Born in New York City on November 20, 1919, to Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright and elementary school teacher Corinne Cooke Wright, Jane Cooke Wright came from a long line of pioneers in the field of medicine. Her paternal grandfather, Dr. Ceah Ketcham Wright, was a graduate of the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee; after he died, her paternal grandmother married Dr. William Fletcher Penn, the first African-American to graduate from Yale Medical School. This man inspired Wright's father, Louis Tompkins Wright, who attended Harvard Medical School in the face of racial discrimination. Louis Wright later went on to become a successful surgeon and medical researcher and was the first African-American to be a staff physician at a New York City hospital. Writing in To Fathom More: African American Scientists and Inventors, Edward Sidney Jenkins commented, “That these men, and the families who supported and encouraged them, could aim so high, even in the shadows of slavery, and achieve such lofty goals, is a striking commentary on their character.” Both Jane Cooke Wright and her younger sister, Barbara, followed in the family tradition and became doctors.

Wright was educated in New York City, first at the private Ethical Culture elementary school and later at the Fieldston School, where she particularly enjoyed science and mathematics. She also served as art editor for the yearbook and became captain of the swim team. After graduating from Fieldston in 1938, she attended Smith College in Massachusetts on a scholarship. There, she excelled in her studies and swam on the varsity swim team. She also studied German, living for time in the college's German house. Although she briefly considered pursuing art or physics as a career, Wright settled on medicine. After graduating from Smith in 1942, she enrolled at New York Medical College, again attending on a scholarship due to her academic strength.

Due to World War II, the college required students to complete their studies in only three years, and in 1945 Wright graduated from the college with honors and began an internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. She remained at Bellevue for nine months as an assistant in internal medicine. After completing this internship, she continued her training at Harlem Hospital, where she served as a resident in internal medicine in 1947 and 1948. Also in 1947, she married David D. Jones Jr., a graduate of Harvard Law School; the couple would later have two daughters, Jane and Allison. After completing her training, Wright continued to work at Harlem Hospital. In 1949 she took a position as a staff physician with the New York City public school system, and continued to serve as a visiting physician at Harlem Hospital.

Became Cancer Researcher

In 1948 Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright, Jane Cooke Wright's father, had founded the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation to investigate the possibilities for and effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs in cancer treatment. The following year, Jane Cooke Wright joined the staff of the Harlem Cancer Research Foundation as a clinician; Jenkins noted that “she made the transition from medical practice to medical researcher quickly and smoothly.” Much of her work centered on patient trials. Wright studied the reactions of different drugs and chemotherapy techniques on tumors, as well as what her biography in Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present called “the complex relationships and variations between test animal and patient, tissue sample and patient, and individual patient responses to various chemotherapeutic agents.” In 1951 the researchers had some success in using the drug methotrexate to destroy breast cancer cells; up to that time, what little research had been conducted focused on the drug's efficacy with cancers of the lymph nodes or blood, rather than cancerous tumors. With her father, Wright also performed research into the effects of triethylene melamine. When Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright died in 1952, Jane Cooke Wright became the head of the Harlem Cancer Research Foundation.

Other cancer researchers began to acknowledge the importance of the discoveries made by Wright and her team of researchers. During the 1940s and 1950s, chemotherapy was a new, untested cancer treatment that many physicians either disregarded or outright ridiculed for its presumed ineffectiveness in aiding cancer patients. Despite these obstacles, Wright continued to seek out all the information she could find on chemotherapy research and developments, reading widely, attending conferences, and sharing knowledge with other national and international researchers.

Advanced Chemotherapy Treatment

When Wright left the Harlem Cancer Research Foundation in 1955 to take a position at the New York University Bellevue Medical Center, she continued her research. In 1961 she became an adjunct professor of research surgery at the medical center, where she remained until 1967. That year, Wright left to accept a position as associate dean and professor of surgery at New York Medical College; Wright's biography on the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health Web site noted that “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 remained at the college until her retirement, creating a program of study into cancer, heart diseases, and stroke, as well as one to teach doctors how to use chemotherapy in addition to conducting medical research.

Wright was particularly interested in the effectiveness of a series of chemotherapeutic drugs administered in a specified order, rather than simply as a combination of medicines; her research into this idea was the first of its kind. Wright also began experimenting with different drugs and cancer tissues in order to determine the specific effects of certain drugs and thus increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment for different forms of cancer. Jenkins noted that “this was a significant contribution because then there were few guidelines for any chemotherapy procedures.” Wright and her team developed new techniques of administering drugs that ultimately led to an increased reduction of cancer cells via chemotherapy.

In 1960 Wright and her fellow researchers successfully caused a form of skin cancer to regress using chemotherapy. Before this accomplishment, the cancer had been treated with radiation therapy. Wright noticed that by including chemotherapy in early cancer treatments, the lifespan of the treated cancer patients increased by up to ten years.

Because the drugs used in chemotherapy can be harmful to patients, Wright worked to develop treatment guidelines to provide the maximum benefit to patients with a minimum danger of drug intolerance. Wright carefully monitored all chemotherapy patients, lessening or stopping treatment if a person showed signs of damage from the drugs. She also stopped chemotherapy treatment on patients whose tumors disappeared or, in certain circumstances, were greatly reduced in size. Wright had the joy of seeing some of her patients with advanced stages of cancer recover and live for years after chemotherapy treatments.

A Respected Career

Wright's many contributions to the field of chemotherapy included services other than research. In 1957 she traveled to Ghana on a medical mission; four years later she returned to Africa representing the African Research and Medical Foundation. She would later serve as vicepresident of that foundation from 1973 to 1984. Wright also led a delegation of medical professionals to China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union as an ambassador of People to People International.

Wright was a member of the highly-respected American Association for Cancer Research, a professional organization dedicated to the study of cancer treatments, and later served on its board of directors. In 1964 she helped found the American Society of Clinical Oncology (cancer medicine); within 15 years, this organization's membership grew from 60 to 8,800. Wright also held membership in the New York City Division of the American Cancer Society, the Medical Advisory Board of the Skin Cancer Foundation, and the New York Cancer Society. In 1971 she became the New York Cancer Society's first female president.

Wright also sat on many government committees. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Wright to serve on the cancer subcommittee of the President's Commission of Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. Her suggestions as part of this commission led to the foundation of regional cancer centers throughout the United States. From 1966 to 1970, Wright served on the National Cancer Advisory Committee, and from 1966 until her retirement she also sat on several committees under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Wright received a number of awards for contributions to cancer research. One of her first came in 1952 from Mademoiselle magazine. In 1965 the Albert Einstein College of Medicine awarded Wright its Spirit of Achievement Award; two years later, she was a recipient of the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath award. The following year, Smith College awarded her the Smith Medal. During the 1960s and 1970s Wright was also recognized by the American Association for Cancer Research, the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, and Denison University. Later, Wright was featured in a poster series of “Exceptional Black Scientists” released by CIBA-GEIGY and included by the Smithsonian Institution in its traveling exhibit Black Women: Achievement Against the Odds.

Retirement Years

Becoming an emeritus professor, Wright retired from the New York Medical College and active cancer research in 1987. In the years since then, she has spent much of her time pursuing her hobbies, which include watercolor painting, reading mystery stories, and sailing. At her Smith College 50-year class reunion in 1992, Wright spoke about the place of cancer during the history of the human race, noting that the increases in life span aided by chemotherapy she had witnessed during her life time “justified her faith in chemotherapy as a major weapon against a tough adversary,” according to Jenkins.

In 2006 Wright's personal and professional papers were added to the Sophia Smith collection at the Smith College archives. Also in 2006, the first “Minorities in Cancer Research Jane Cooke Wright Lectureship,” named in honor of Wright's contributions to the field of cancer research, was awarded by the American Association of Cancer Research to Nigerian scientist and researcher Professor Olufunmilayo Olopade. According to the Africa News, “The Lectureship is given to an outstanding scientist who has made meritorious contributions to the field of cancer research and who has, through leadership or by example, furthered the advancement of minority investigators in cancer research.” This description encapsulates the legacy of Jane Cooke Wright, whose own contributions to cancer research—including 135 scientific papers and contributions to nine books—have had significant and lasting effects on the field of medicine.

Books

Jenkins, Edward Sidney, To Fathom More: African American Scientists and Inventors, University Press of America, 1996.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1992.

Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.

Sammons, Vivian Ovelton, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere, 1990.

Periodicals

Africa News, April 18, 2006.

Online

“Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Jane Cooke Wright,” National Library of Medicine, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceodmedicine/physicians/biography_336.html, (December 30, 2007).

“Jane C. Wright Papers, 1920–2006 Finding Aid,” Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/sophiasmith/mnsss402.html, (December 30, 2007).

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