Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was a physician and cancer researcher who dedicated her professional career to the advancement of chemotherapy techniques. Wright was born in New York City, New York on November 20, 1919. She was the older of two daughters to parents Louis Tompkins Wright and Corinne (Cooke) Wright. Her familial background included her father, Louis Tompkins Wright, who was one of the first African Americans to earn an M.D. degree from Harvard Medical School, her grandfather, Dr. Ceah Ketcham Wright, born enslaved but who later earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College, and her step-grandfather, Dr. William Fletcher Penn, who was the first African American to graduate from Yale Medical College.
Jane Wright attended private schools in New York City and in 1942 graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Three years later Wright graduated from New York Medical College receiving an M.D. degree in 1945.
After internship and residency at Bellevue Hospital, New York between 1945 and 1946, Wright married David D. Jones, Jr., an attorney in 1947. The couple had two daughters, Jane and Allison. Wright’s father, Louis Tompkins Wright, established the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital in New York City in 1947. In 1949 Wright joined her father at the Center and three years later upon his death, succeeded him as the director of what was now the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital.
In 1949 Wright began the cancer research that would make her one of the leading names in the field. Working initially with her father, she made numerous improvements to chemotherapy treatment including using nitrogen mustard agents to treat sarcoma, leukemia, and lymphoma. She pioneered in the use of patient tumor biopsies for drug testing against various tumors, and she developed a non-surgical procedure using a catheter to deliver chemotherapy drugs to previously inaccessible tumors in the kidneys and spleen.
In 1955 Wright was named director of cancer chemotherapy research at the New York University Medical Center. She was also an instructor of research surgery in the Medical Center’s Department of Surgery. In 1964 she was the only woman and the only African American among the seven founders of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Later that year President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. Wright served on the National Cancer Center Advisory Board from 1966 to 1970 and in July 1967, Dr. Wright became a professor of surgery at New York Medical College. At the time she was the highest ranking African American woman in a United States medical institution. Four years later in 1971 she became the firs woman to serve as president of the New York Cancer Society.
Jane Cooke Wright received numerous citations and awards. Among them, the Merit Award from Mademoiselle magazine in 1952, the Spirit of Achievement Award of the Women’s Division of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1961, and the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award in 1967. The following year her alma mater, Smith College, presented her with the Smith Medal, its highest award.
In 1987, after a 44 year career, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright retired as an emerita professor at New York Medical College. She died on February 19, 2013 in Guttenberg, New Jersey at the age of 94. Her contributions to the research of cancer chemotherapy have helped to change the face of medicine and continue to be used to this day.