Overlooked: Black Woman Doctors Key Role in Oncology History

When Jane Cooke Wright, MD, entered the medical profession in 1945, the notion that toxic drugs could target tumors struck many physicians and patients as outlandish. How could one poison be weaponized against another poison — a cancerous tumor — without creating more havoc? Let alone a combination of two or more chemicals?

Yet by the time Wright retired in 1987, chemotherapy treatments that she’d helped develop were routinely saving lives. In fact, she’d played key roles in the development of oncology, a new medical specialty, and of its most powerful agent to combat disease and death.

Dr Jane Cooke Wright

Wright’s story would be extraordinary enough if she’d looked like most of her colleagues, but this surgeon and researcher stood apart. An African American woman at a time when medicine and science — like politics and law — were almost entirely the domain of White men, Wright had determination in her blood. Her father, once honored by a crowd of dignitaries that included a First Lady, persevered despite his horrific encounters with racism. She shared her father’s commitment to progress and added her own personal twists. She balanced elegance and beauty with scientific savvy, fierce ambition, and a refusal to be defined by anything other than her accomplishments.

“She didn’t focus on race, not at all,” her daughter Alison Jones, PhD, a psychologist in East Lansing, Mich., said in an interview. “Wherever she was, she wanted to be the best, not the best Black person. It was not about how she performed in a category, and she would get upset if someone said she was good as a Black physician.”

On the road to being the best, Jones said, her mother set a goal of curing cancer. National Cancer Research Month is a fitting opportunity to look back on a scientist dedicated to bringing humanity closer to that elusive achievement.

Medical Legacy Blazed in Toil and Trauma

A strong case could be made that Jane C. Wright and her father Louis Tompkins Wright, MD, are the most accomplished father-and-daughter team in all of medicine.

The elder Wright, son of a formerly enslaved man turned physician and a stepson of the first African American to graduate from Yale University, New Haven, Conn., himself graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1915. He earned a Purple Heart while serving in World War I, then went on to become the first Black surgeon to join the staff at Harlem Hospital.

Wright, who had witnessed mob violence and the aftermath of a lynching as a young man, became a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance and a prominent advocate for civil rights and integration. He served as chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was only the second Black member of the American College of Surgeons.

According to the 2009 book “Black Genius: Inspirational Portraits of African American Leaders,” he successfully treated the rare but devastating venereal disease lymphogranuloma venereum with a new antibiotic developed by his former colleague Yellapragada SubbaRow, MD. Wright even tried the drug himself, “as a lot of doctors in the olden days did,” according to another of his daughters, the late Barbara Wright Pierce, MD, who was quoted in “Black Genius.” She, too, was a physician.

In 1948, Jane C. Wright joined her father at Harlem Hospital’s Cancer Research Foundation. There the duo explored the cancer-fighting possibilities of a nitrogen mustard-like chemical agent that had been known since World War I to kill white blood cells. Ironically, Louis Wright himself suffered lifelong health problems because of an attack from the poisonous gas phosgene during his wartime service.

“Remissions were observed in patients with sarcoma, Hodgkin disease, and chronic myelogenous leukemia, mycosis fungoides, and lymphoma,” reported a 2013 obituary in the journal Oncology of the younger Wright. “They also performed early research into the clinical efficacy and toxicity of folic acid antagonists, documenting responses in 93 patients with various forms of incurable blood cancers and solid tumors.”

This research appears in a study that was authored by three Wrights — Louis T. Wright and his daughters Jane and Barbara.

“The elder Wright died in 1952, just months after 1,000 people — including Eleanor Roosevelt — honored him at a dinner to dedicate a Harlem Hospital library named after him. He was 61.

Scientific Savvy Mixed With Modesty and Elegance

After her father’s death, Janet C. Wright became director of the hospital’s cancer foundation. From the 1950s to the 1970s, she “worked out ways to use pieces of a patient’s own tumor, removed by surgery and grown in a nutrient culture medium in the laboratory, as a ‘guinea pig for testing drugs,’ ” according to the 1991 book “Black Scientists.” Previously, researchers had focused on mice as test subjects.

This approach also allowed Wright to determine if specific drugs such as methotrexate, a folic acid antagonist, would help specific patients. “She was looking for predictive activity for chemotherapeutic efficacy in vitro at a time when no one had good predictive tests,” wrote James F. Holland, MD, the late Mount Sinai School of Medicine oncologist, who was quoted in Wright’s 2013 Oncology obituary.

“Her strict attention to detail and concern for her patients helped determine effective dosing levels and establish treatment guidelines,” the Oncology obituary reported. “She treated patients that other physicians had given up on, and she was among the first small cadre of researchers to carefully test the effects of drugs against cancer in a clinical trial setting.”

Wright also focused on developing ways to administer chemotherapy, such using a catheter to reach difficult-to-access organs like the spleen without surgery, according to “Black Scientists.”

Along with her work, Wright’s appearance set her apart. According to “Black Genius,” a newspaper columnist dubbed her one of the 10 most beautiful Back woman in America, and Ebony Magazine in 1966 honored her as one of the best-dressed women in America. It featured a photograph of her in a stunning ivory and yellow brocade gown, noting that she was “in private life Mrs. David J. Jones.” (She’d married the Harvard University Law School graduate in 1946.)

Wright had a sense of modesty despite her accomplishments, according to her daughter Alison Jones. She even downplayed her own mental powers in a newspaper interview. “I know I’m a member of two minority groups,” she told The New York Post in 1967, “but I don’t think of myself that way. Sure, a woman has to try twice as hard. But — racial prejudice? I’ve met very little of it. It could be I met it — and wasn’t intelligent enough to recognize it.”

Sharp-eyed readers might have glimpsed her modesty nearly 2 decades later. In a 1984 article for the Journal of the National Medical Association, a society of African American physicians, she wrote about the past, present, and future of chemotherapy without noting her own prominent role in its development.

“Global Medical Pioneer” Co-founds ASCO — and More

In the 1960s, Wright joined the influential President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke and was named associate dean at New York Medical College, her alma mater, a first for a black woman at a prominent U.S. medical school. Even more importantly, Wright was the sole woman among seven physicians who founded the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago in 1964. She served as ASCO’s first Secretary-Treasurer and was honored as its longest surviving founder when she passed away 9 years ago.

“Jane Wright had the vision to see that oncology was an important separate discipline within medicine with far-reaching implications for research and discovery,” Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, oncologist Sandra M. Swain, MD, a former president of the ASCO and author of the 2013 Oncology obituary of Wright, said in an interview. “It is truly remarkable that, as a woman and an African American woman, she had a seat at the very small table for the formation of such an important group.”

As her friend and fellow oncologist Edith Mitchell, MD, said in a eulogy, “Wright led delegations of oncologists to China and the Soviet Union, and countries in Africa and Eastern Europe. She led medical teams providing medical and cancer care and education to other nurses and physicians in Ghana in 1957 and Kenya in 1961. From 1973 to 1984, she served as vice-president of the African Research and Medical foundation.”

Wright also raised two daughters. A 1968 Ebony article devoted to her career and family declared that neither of her teenagers was interested in medical careers. Their perspectives shifted, however — as had Wright’s. An undergraduate at Smith College, Wright majored in art, swam on the varsity team, and had a special affinity for German language studies before she switched to premed.

Like their mother, Wright’s daughters also changed paths, and they ultimately became the fourth generation of their family to enter the medical field. Alison Jones, the psychologist, currently works in a prison, while Jane Jones, MD, became a clinical psychiatrist. She’s now retired and lives in Guttenberg, N.J.

Both fondly remember their mother as a supportive force who insisted on excellence. “There couldn’t be any excuses for you not getting where you wanted to go,” Jane Jones recalled in an interview.

Nevertheless, Wright was still keenly aware of society’s limits. “She told me I had to be a doctor or lawyer,” Alison Jones said, “because that’s how you need to survive when you’re Black in America.”

Wright passed away in 2013 at age 93. “Jane C. Wright truly has made contributions that have changed the practice of medicine,” noted her friend Mitchell, an oncologist and a retired brigadier general with the U.S. Air Force who now teaches at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia. “A true pioneer. A concerned mentor. A renowned researcher. A global teacher. A global medical pioneer. A talented researcher, beloved sister, wife, and mother, and a beautiful, kind, and loving human being.”

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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