Dr. Jane Cooke Wright

Dr. Jane Wright made her mark in cancer research, developing new techniques for administering chemotherapy and evaluating new treatments for the disease. Jane Wright grew up in a wealthy and prestigious family in New York City. Her father, Dr. Louis Wright, was one of the first black graduates of Harvard University Medical School. In the late 1930s, he founded the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital where Jane Wright would later do some of her most important medical research. Jane Wright grew up during the Harlem Renaissance. African American artists, musicians, writers, and political activists were celebrating their culture, and challenging America’s racial barriers. In a time of great aspirations, Jane Wright was fortunate to have the support and guidance of her family, as well as access to a fine education. Smith College offered her a four-year academic scholarship to study art. In her junior year, at her father’s request, she changed her major to pre-med. She enrolled on a full academic scholarship at New York Medical College where the majority of students were white. Jane Wright was elected president of the Honor Society and vice president of her class. She graduated with honors in 1945. Four years later she joined her father, then the Director of the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital. Together, they experimented with different chemical agents on leukemia in mice. While her father worked in the lab, she performed patient trials. In 1949, the Wrights began treating patients with anti-cancer drugs. Several patients experienced some degree of remission. When her father died in 1952, Dr. Jane Wright succeeded him as director. In 1955, she joined the faculty of New York University as an Associate Professor of Surgical Research, and Director of Cancer Research. There, she continued her work with chemotherapy studying a variety of anti-cancer drugs and developing new techniques for delivering potent drugs to tumors deep within the body. She created a database, cross-referencing cancers and patients, to help determine the effectiveness of these drugs. Later, Dr. Wright began experimenting with combinations of anti-cancer drugs. Because she believed most cancers were caused by viruses, she investigated a new class of anti-cancer agents comparable to antibiotics. During her forty-year career, she produced more than seventy-five research papers on cancer chemotherapy, and in 1971, became the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.