Wright, Louis Tompkins 1891–1952
Louis Tompkins Wright 1891–1952
Surgeon and civil rights activist
Louis Tompkins Wright, one of the United States’ first black surgeons, was a trailblazer. Making important research contributions both in his own field and in internal medicine, he had published 91 papers by the time he died in 1952 at the age of 61. In Black Pioneers of Science, Louis Haber outlined some of Wright’s accomplishments in medicine: “the first black physician to be appointed to the staff of a New York municipal hospital, the first black surgeon in the police department of New York City, the first to experiment with Aureomycin, an antibiotic, on humans, the first black surgeon to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons since its inception, and the first black physician in America to head a public interracial hospital.”
Wright was also a trendsetter in the area of civil rights. He scorned the “separate but equal” method of coping with prejudice that was prevalent during his lifetime, believing that this path could only lead to increased segregation. Through his long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he battled fiercely against discrimination in the wider community, expertly using the press to achieve his purpose.
The medical profession remembers Dr. Wright as a civil rights warrior who often clashed with the establishment to make things easier for black physicians who came after him. In a tart, no-nonsense way, he insisted that an evenly high standard of medical care could only come from doctors chosen on the basis of ability and educational need rather than on the criterion of race. He was no less vehement about patients’ rights, arguing that race or economic status should play no part in the choice of treatment or hospital. When challenged by debaters in favor of separatism, he pointed out that disease respects neither riches nor race and that inadequate medical care given to one section of a city may bring epidemics to even the wealthiest community members.
Louis Wright was the son of a prominent physician, Dr. Ceah Ketcham Wright. A member of the reconstructionist generation, Ceah Wright belonged to the tiny educated group that constituted the United States’ first black elite. He eventually left the practice of medicine to become a clergyman and died in 1895, when Louis was only four years old.
In 1899 Mrs. Wright’s remarriage brought another star
Born July 23,1891, in La Grange, GA; died of heart attack, October 8,1952; son of Ceah Ketcham (a doctor) and Lula Tompkins Wright; stepson of William Fletcher Penn (a doctor); married Corinne Cooke, May 18, 1918; children: Jane Wright Jones, M.D., Barbara Wright Pierce, M.D. Education: Graduated from Clark University, 1911; Harvard University, M.D., 1915.
Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., intern, 1916; police surgeon, New York City, 1929; Harlem Hospital, New York City, clinical assistant visiting surgeon, 1919, appointed to permanent staff, 1920, director of surgery, 1943, president of medical board, 1948, director of Cancer Research Foundation, 1948; published numerous medical papers. Served as treasurer of Atlanta chapter and chair of board of directors, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); member of executive committee and advisory council, Department of Hospitals, New York City. Military service: U.S. Army, 1917-19; became captain; received Purple Heart.
Member: NAACP, American College of Surgeons, American Trudeau Society, Harlem Surgical Society (founder, 1937), Manhattan Central Medical Society.
Selected awards: International College of Surgeons honorary fellow; American College of Surgeons fellow, 1934; Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1940; honorary doctorate, Clark University; a library at Harlem Hospital was named for Wright, 1952.
into the family, Fletcher Penn, Yale University’s first black medical graduate. Dr. Penn’s experiences at Yale brought his Atlanta practice professional excellence plus respect from the city’s black and white communities. Penn helped shape Louis’s view that segregation and high medical standards could not coexist.
Because he grew up in an intellectual, highly regarded family, Louis was 15 before he had his first serious brush with racial discrimination, which occurred when he had to help protect his family’s home during the 1907 Atlanta race riot. The year 1907 was also memorable for less stressful reasons. It marked the end of Wright’s high school education at Clark University and his entrance into the same institution as an undergraduate college freshman. At Clark, Wright began to emerge as an achiever, studying hard enough to graduate as valedictorian in 1911. With his stepfather’s encouragement, Louis set his sights on Harvard Medical School.
While Harvard’s academic demands were easily met by Wright, racial slights made being the only black student in the class more difficult. One incident that left a deep scar on Wright occurred during his obstetrics training, when an assistant professor informed him that his color would bar him from joining his white classmates for practical obstetrics experience at Boston Lying-In Hospital. Instead, he was told he would have to work with a black gynecologist in private practice. “I’ve paid my money,”Wright responded to the professor, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “and I’m going to get what the catalogue provides for, which includes obstetrics in the Boston Lying-In Hospital.” Backed by his supportive fellow students, he completed his obstetrics training without further incident.
The acceptance of his colleagues did not shield Wright from experiencing racism at his 1915 graduation ceremony. Despite his cum laude status, he was ordered to march at the tail end of the procession rather than in his rightful place near its head. Wright was tempted to boycott the proceedings but was persuaded by his parents to attend.
The long shadow of segregation did not recede as young Dr. Wright emerged from Harvard. If anything, it was at the root of several ensuing obstacles to Wright’s medical career. As his hunt for a suitable internship began, he was denied the opportunity to be trained at one of the country’s top medical schools. Soon, refusals came in from Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston City Hospital, and Peter Bent Brigham. In the end, Wright was forced to go to Washington, where he accepted a post at the segregated Freedmen’s Hospital.
During the incessant work of an internship year, Louis Wright found his curiosity piqued by a certain medical article on diphtheria. The essay focused mainly on the Schick test, a diagnostic injection that would produce telltale skin inflammation and redness in patients lacking immunity to the dangerous disease. Wright questioned the authors’ conclusion that this test could not be used for blacks because of their heavy skin pigmentation. Since diphtheria is extremely infectious, Wright felt it was vitally important to know whether the Schick test could help to halt its rapid spread through the overcrowded ghettos occupied by the hospital’s black patients. He therefore set up a medical experiment to find out for himself. The resulting paper, “The Schick Test With Especial Reference to the Negro,” appeared in the Journal of Infectious Disease in 1917 and established Wright as the author of the first scientific publication from the Freedmen’s Hospital.
With his internship complete, Louis Wright returned to Atlanta to practice medicine with his stepfather. There he found rising white resentment against blacks, who were becoming a competitive force to be reckoned with in the workplace. Feisty and insistent on recognition for his true worth, the young physician cut his stay short, pausing just long enough to join a civil rights organization that had become increasingly voluble since its founding in 1910— the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Both Wright and the NAACP were dedicated to eradicating racial prejudice from American society; both recognized education as a top priority for the sparsely literate black population; both felt that publicizing black achievement in the society’s newsletter, the Crisis, would bring courage and pride to the community; and neither flinched from the prospect of taking racial injustice to the courts. Wright had no hesitation about becoming prominent in the civil rights movement and soon became the first treasurer of the NAACP’s newly minted Atlanta chapter.
With the onset of World War I, the NAACP pressured the U.S. Congress into establishing the country’s first training camp for black officers at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in 1917. Dr. Wright was one of the first graduates of the camp. Commissioned as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Medical Corps, he left for France immediately with the 367th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division. The training camp had taught him a great deal, but it could not prepare him for an assault with a German weapon called phosgene gas, which permanently damaged Wright’s lungs. Nevertheless, the indomitable young doctor returned to duty after just three weeks.
Wright’s capacity for hard work and his fine surgical skills had not gone unnoticed by the colonel commanding his regiment. Having shown himself capable of handling responsibility, he was transferred to Triage Hospital 366, where he was placed in charge of the surgical wards. There he learned about hospital administration, a field which became increasingly important when the war years came to an end.
Wright went back to America in 1919 and accepted a reluctantly offered appointment as a clinical assistant visiting surgeon at Harlem Hospital in New York. Undisturbed by his position on the hospital’s lowest professional rung, he was glad to take his place as the hospital’s first black physician. Unfortunately, the superintendent who had given him his job was immediately transferred.
Harlem Hospital was in bad administrative shape. Stationed in the heart of the new Jazz Age playground, the institution was tax-supported and therefore theoretically available to all American citizens, including the estimated 152,000 blacks who then lived in the New York area. Yet newspaper articles told tales of stealthy donations made by black patients to buy care, and there were numerous examples of unfriendly and skimpy service by the hostile, all-white medical and nursing staff.
The hospital’s bad reputation did not sit well with a veteran accustomed to precise military organization. Wright soon asked his friend Civil Service Commissioner Ferdinand Q. Morton to help him begin a brisk shakeup of the city’s hospital system in general, and Harlem Hospital in particular. Morton agreed that this was vital and persuaded the city administration to cooperate. Reorganization was not completed until 1929. Once in place, the new system swept away the central committee of hospital trustees, which had given the city’s largest hospital the widest policy-setting vote; instead, each hospital now had its own board under the authority of the new Department of Hospitals and was therefore able to set its own policy.
The reform should have streamlined administration for Harlem Hospital. But it had the opposite effect: friction among the divided staff increased sharply. An official survey ensued, leading to the dismissal of 23 white doctors and the hiring of 19 black doctors. Wright, who participated in the selection process, became a prime target for disgruntled physicians.
Wright sailed calmly through the storm, helping the NAACP to secure a Carnegie Foundation grant so that yet another review by a panel of both medical and nonmedical personnel could be established. The committee’s findings were published in 1936 as a book titled Opportunities for the Medical Education of Negroes, which outlined the limited openings available to suitably qualified black medical graduates and emphasized that blacks must be welcomed by tax-supported institutions. The publication was received with great enthusiasm, and the NAACP’s success was accentuated by staunch backing from the medical profession’s white members.
Other civil rights activities that Wright undertook at this time focused on the black professional organization called the North Harlem Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Society. Believing that this group was not working hard enough against segregation, Wright broke away in 1930 to head the newly formed Manhattan Central Medical Society.
First on the society’s agenda was opposition to a new segregated hospital to be funded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. This was not Rosenwald’s first charitable project. In past years his foundation had earned recognition for supplying grants for black schools, artists, and writers. Now, unintentionally feeding into the prejudice of the times, the foundation wished to establish all-black medical schools, hospitals, and health programs.
Infuriated by the proposal, Wright, who time and again had voiced his belief that a segregated medical system could lead only to unfair training standards for doctors and nurses and hamper patients in their search for appropriate medical care, pointed out that the practice would make segregation in the wider community much worse than it already was. A biting letter of opposition was sent to the president of the Rosenwald Foundation, and a pamphlet titled “Equal Opportunity—No More, No Less,” was circulated in 1931. Both showed unmistakable traces of Wright’s forthright hand. Together the letter and pamphlet worked to stop the establishment of an all-black hospital in New York.
Wright’s star shone brightly in 1934, when he took over the chairmanship of the NAACP’s board of directors, a position he occupied until his death 17 years later. A long membership in the organization had familiarized him with the chairman’s duties, which consisted principally of steering discussions, executing NAACP policy, and appointing working committees to deal with each undertaking as it arose.
Wright’s personal priorities were well known within the NAACP. Any “separate but equal” policies were an immediate target, especially if they impeded the education of blacks; such practices were grounds for immediate protest in the NAACP newsletter Crisis. Also blackballed were any signs of genial paternalism towards blacks, who wanted equal status on agricultural, educational, and other boards. Job opportunities and help for black farmers and artists also stood high on the chairman’s wish list.
Energetic civil rights campaigning, however, did not interrupt Wright’s medical work. A distinguished career—which had seen Wright appointed New York City’s first black police surgeon—gained even greater momentum with research into several different topics. Meticulously documented in appropriate medical journals, Wright’s papers focused on a variety of topics. Most noteworthy were a number of papers on bone surgery, including one on head injuries written specifically for the 11th edition of a textbook called The Treatment of Fractures, by Charles Scudder. Another described a metal blade plate invented by Wright himself to support fractures of the leg’s long bones. A neck brace, also a Wright design, was the subject of a third article.
All of Wright’s activity came to an abrupt end in 1939, though, when he contracted tuberculosis and had to spend the next three years in Biggs Memorial Hospital in Ithaca, New York. The days of his illness were tedious, but Wright received an unexpected boost when he was informed that he won the NAACP’s Spingam Medal for 1940.
At the end of his convalescence, Wright was honored again—this time with the offer to become Harlem Hospital’s Director of the Department of Surgery. He was pleased to assume the post as soon as he was home from the Ithaca sanitorium but had to accept that he would have to follow strict new health rules for the rest of his life, including no travel by airplane, limited stair climbing, and an enforced daily rest period on a cot in his office.
Wright incorporated these restrictions into his schedule and continued working. A drug company seeking clinical trials of the new antibiotics known as aureomycin and terramycin approached the physician about undertaking a research project. Viewing the task as an opportunity to further the cause of civil rights, Wright put together a diverse team of experts to demonstrate the wonder drugs’ effectiveness against venereal disease, whooping cough, pneumonia, and other diseases. A total of 35 papers recorded the success of the antibiotics. The accomplishment was additionally gratifying to the team leader because of the painless multiracial cooperation he had initiated. Characteristically, Wright made sure that all his researchers would have a chance to publish their later work by founding the Harlem Hospital Bulletin in 1948.
Also in 1948, Dr. Wright was elected president of the hospital board. Still in this position in 1952, he was honored that year with the inauguration of a new Harlem Hospital library named after him. More than 1,000 guests were present at the dinner to hear him praised by Eleanor Roosevelt and to note his modest reply on behalf of his hospital staff. This dinner was one of Dr. Wright’s last triumphs. He died of a heart attack in October of that year, leaving behind his wife, Corinne, and two daughters, both of whom followed in their father’s footsteps and pursued medical careers.
Foner, Eric, America’s Black Past, Harper, 1953.
Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.
Hughes, Langston, Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP, Norton, 1962.
Ross, B. Joyce., J. E. Spingarn and the Rise of the NAACP, Atheneum, 1972.
Schoener, Allon, editor, Harlem on My Mind, Random House, 1968.
Crisis, September 1935; May 1936; June/July 1952; November 1952.
Ebony, June 1949; January 1951.
Journal of the American Medical Association, November 22, 1952; March 1953.
The Negro History Bulletin, May 1953.
Opportunity, October 1934.
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