Dr. Jane C. Wright has been called the “mother of chemotherapy” because of her groundbreaking cancer research. Her work in the 1950s and 1960s made possible the life-saving chemotherapy that’s still used today. However, like many other Black women in science, she is not a household name, although her contributions changed the course of healthcare.
A Family of Doctors
Jane Cooke Wright was born in 1919 in New York City, according to Encyclopedia.com. She came from a family of barrier-breaking doctors. Two of her grandfathers, her father and her sister were all doctors during a time of widespread racial and gender discrimination. She grew up and built her career when women were excluded from professional settings and Jim Crow laws explicitly marginalized African Americans, according to History.com.
Despite institutional prejudice, Wright rose to prominence in the medical field and was heavily involved in scientific societies. She attended Smith College and then New York Medical College on academic scholarships. She started her medical career as an intern at Bellevue Hospital and then as a resident at Harlem Hospital, according to Encyclopedia.com. During this time, she also served as a staff physician with New York City’s public school system.
In 1949, she joined her father, Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright, at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation that he founded. At this point, her focus shifted to clinical research for cancer treatment.
What Is Chemotherapy?
So, what is chemotherapy exactly? During this time, cancer was treated with surgery and radiation, but those techniques weren’t always good enough to eliminate the cancerous cells. Chemotherapy, the use of chemical agents as therapeutics, was an emerging cancer treatment that many physicians disregarded or ridiculed as being ineffective, according to Encyclopedia.com.
Dr. Wright conducted clinical trials that proved that chemotherapy could make certain types of cancer regress.
She identified specific therapies, such as triethylene melamine and methotrexate, which are still used today to treat breast cancer and childhood leukemia, according to The New Inquiry. She also refined the definition of chemotherapy, beyond simply being a single drug given as medicine to treat cancer. She advocated for combination therapy in which you administer multiple chemotherapy medications in a precise order to treat cancer as it evolves.
In addition to developing cancer treatments, Dr. Wright also changed the way that cancer is researched. She and her father demonstrated that tumor cells could be removed from the body and studied in a laboratory to find out which drugs would work best for a particular patient, according to Helix.
Contributions Beyond the Lab
She was a wife, a mother and an artist who nearly studied art at Smith College and enjoyed painting in her retirement, according to Encyclopedia.com. Wright was very active in the scientific community, publishing 135 scientific papers and holding leadership positions in scholarly societies and professional organizations. According to the National Library of Medicine, Dr. Jane C. Wright was the highest-ranked Black woman at a nationally recognized medical institution.
She was a professor of surgery, head of the cancer chemotherapy department, and associate dean at New York Medical College. In 1964, she was one of the founding seven members of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which now has 45,000 members of cancer researchers. In 1971, she became New York Cancer Society’s first female president.
According to her obituary in the New York Times, Wright didn’t consider herself limited by racial prejudice. However, as a Black woman in a field that is dominated by white men, she changed the face of medicine for future generations.