Recognizing Dr. Jane Cooke Wright’s Achievements in Medicine During Black History Month

While many of us take our liberties and successes for granted, Black History Month is an opportunity to look at those who forged a path for the rights that African Americans have gained, and still continue to strive for. It is much more common to see African American doctors in hospitals, in laboratories and on medical boards now than it was just 30 years ago. In part, this is due to the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, which granted some basic freedoms to blacks and started the process of desegregation in our society. But some doctors didn’t wait for the Civil Rights Act to make their markonmedicine, and on American history.

Jane Cooke Wright, MD, an oncologist, was one of these medical pioneers. Two months before the Civil Rights Act was passed Dr. Wright met with six other oncologists to discuss the creation of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Her efforts with chemotherapy treatments revolutionized cancer patient care. The research she conducted on targeted chemotherapy is the forerunner of the current trend toward personalized medicine that matches medical treatments to an individual’s specific genetic makeup.

Descended from a former slave, her grandfather, who attended the first southern medical school to allow black students, she graduated from an accelerated 3 year program at New York Medical College in 1945.  Dr. Wright became a staff physician for the New York public school system before leaving to conduct cancer research with her father at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation.

Her research and successes honed her interest in exchanging cancer therapy knowledge with other leading oncologists to improve the treatment of cancer in patients. In 1964, after helping to create the ASCO, President Lyndon Johnson named her to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke and in 1971 she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. The only woman and African American involved in the founding of the ASCO, she proceeded to work to improve cancer treatments and during her tenure on the President’s Commission instituting a national network of cancer treatments centers.

Dr. Wright’s passion to help cancer patients defined her research and her career. Her legacy lives on as new chemotherapeutic and genetic research continues to build on her early efforts to find effective cancer treatments. Dr. Wright was used to breaking gender and race barriers. Although she claimed not to have felt racial prejudice during her career, her ability to impact medicine must have shown others that race need not be a hindrance to success. All of us are the recipients of more effective cancer treatments that Dr. Wright worked to develop. Her strength and passion gave the gift of healing to everyone, regardless of their race.