Jane Wright, a pioneering oncologist

In this article, DiscovHer brings you the story of Jane Wright, a black female oncologist who overcame the racial and gender-based prejudice of her pre- and civil rights era to revolutionize the research and treatment of cancer, thereby bettering the chances of survival for a great number of sufferers.

Jane Cooke Wright was born in Manhattan to a mother who was a public-school teacher, and a father who was also a doctor. On her father’s side, she came from a line of black medical pioneers. Her father was among the first black graduates from Harvard Medical School, while her paternal grandparents and uncle were also physicians. Her step-grandfather was the first black graduate from the Yale Medical School. Like them, she and her sister chose to be physicians, continuing the family tradition, and overcoming many boundaries to enter a profession that was then largely white and male-dominated.

After graduating with honors from the New York Medical School in 1945, Dr. Wright did residencies at Bellevue Hospital and Harlem Hospital, completing her tenure at Harlem Hospital as chief resident. In 1949 she joined her father in research at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center, which he had founded. During this period, the father-daughter duo collaborated on research into chemotherapeutic treatments for cancer, which were still largely experimental and only used as a last resort treatment for cancer patients at the time. While her father worked in the lab, Wright herself focused on patient trials, where many of their participants experienced remission.

Following her father’s death in 1952, she was named director of his foundation at the age of 33. In 1955, Dr. Wright became an associate professor of surgical research at New York University and director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center and its affiliated Bellevue and University hospitals. Her work here focused on correlating the responses of tissue cultures to anticancer drugs with the responses of patients. In 1964, she developed a nonsurgical method of delivering cancer treatment drugs to internal organs such as the kidneys, using a catheter system.

That same year, she was also appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke, whose recommendations emphasized better communication among doctors, hospitals and research institutions and resulted in a national network of treatment centers. She was also the only woman out of seven physicians who founded the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), whose mission was to deal with the unique needs of doctors treating cancer patients. 

In 1967, Dr. Wright became head of the chemotherapy department and associate dean at New York Medical College, the first time a black woman had held so high a post at an American medical school at a time of discrimination and a lack of African-American physicians. In 1971, she also became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. After a forty-year career researching cancer, Dr. Wright retired in 1987, having made remarkable contributions to global cancer treatment methods. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 93.

In addition to the contributions she made to cancer treatment, Dr. Wright’s mere presence in such important spheres of medical influence as an African-American woman shattered barriers for both aspiring doctors and the gatekeepers holding them back, allowing them to see what they could achieve should their full potential be nourished, a fact which Dr. Wright was deeply aware of.

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