ASCO Cofounder Jane Cooke Wright, MD, Defied Racial/Gender Barriers and Helped Usher in the Modern Age of Chemotherapy


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Jane Cooke Wright, MD

Dr. Wright’s story is unbelievably inspiring and even astounding. Imagine an African American woman sitting with six white men in 1964 and dreaming of an organization that would be focused on the clinical care of patients with cancer. What’s amazing about Jane is first simply that she was there.

—Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP

When Jane Cooke Wright, MD, met with six other oncologists at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago on April 9, 1964, to discuss the creation of American Society of Clinical Oncology,
the first medical society dedicated to bringing patient-oriented issues to clinical oncology, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination in public places was still 2 months away from being signed into law. The only woman and African American at the table that day, Dr. Wright was used to breaking gender and color barriers in the pursuit of her career in medicine, a career that was perhaps preordained.

Family Dynasty

Born on November 30, 1919, in New York, Dr. Wright was born into something of a medical dynasty. Her paternal grandfather, Dr. Ceah Ketcham Wright, born into slavery, attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, the first medical school in the South open to African Americans. Her step-grandfather, Dr. William Fletcher Penn, was the first African American to graduate from Yale Medical School. Her father, Louis Tompkins Wright, was one of the first black graduates of Harvard University Medical School and one of the country’s first black surgeons. An early pioneer in cancer research, he established the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation in 1948 with the goal of encouraging more studies of chemotherapy, then an emerging concept in cancer care.

A stellar student, Jane Cooke Wright attended the Ethical Culture School and later the Fieldston School in New York and graduated from Smith College, where she was an art major before turning her sights on medicine. After graduating from Smith in 1942, Dr. Wright received a full scholarship to New York Medical College, where she graduated with honors in 1945 after an accelerated 3-year program.

She interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York and completed her residency at Harlem Hospital. Perhaps in honor of her mother, Corinne Cooke Wright, an elementary school teacher, Dr. Wright became a staff physician with the New York public school system before joining her father at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation.

Career Marked by Firsts

It was there that the father and daughter team began experimenting with potential anticancer agents both in tissue cultures and in patients, pioneering combinations of chemotherapy, and researching the efficacy of administrating a series of chemotherapeutic drugs in a specific order. They were among the first to test triethylenemelamine, a nitrogen mustard–like compound, as well as the clinical efficacy and toxicity of folic acid antagonists, documenting responses in 93 patients with various types of solid tumor and blood cancers.

In their study, seven different folic acid antagonists were administered as single agents or in combination, with most patients experiencing some improvement. Among the seven agents tested, aminopterin and amethopterin (methotrexate) appeared to produce the greatest effect, providing the first evidence of the efficacy of methotrexate against solid tumor cancers.

“Jane played a pivotal role in the development of methotrexate among other chemotherapeutics, and this is a drug that today is among the greatest of all cancer drugs ever developed,” said Clifford A. ­Hudis, MD, FACP, President of ASCO and Chief, Breast Cancer Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “Methotrexate forms the backbone of the first curative treatments for breast cancer and other cancers, as well as treatment for other serious diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. And Jane did all this in the premodern era of molecular biology.”

Imagining Personalized Medicine

After the death of her father in 1952, Dr. Wright became the Director of the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation, and in 1955 she joined the faculty of the New York University Medical Center as Director of Cancer Research, where she focused on correlating the responses of tissue cultures to anticancer drugs with the responses of patients. In a paper describing her study,1 Dr. Wright and her coauthors concluded that primary tissue culture might be a valid method for screening and selecting the most effective chemotherapy agent for specific tumors in individual patients, a precursor to the concept of personalized medicine.

Excited by the possibility of drug development in the treatment of cancer, Dr. Wright joined the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in 1954 to share her research in chemotherapeutics and to learn from other researchers how best to extend the lives of patients with cancer. It was this desire to focus her energies on the clinical care of patients that led her to the Edgewater Beach Hotel and her meeting with the other six founding members of ASCO: Fred J. Ansfield, MD, Harry F. Bisel, MD, Herman H. Freckman, MD, Arnoldus Goudsmit, MD, PhD, Robert Talley, MD, and William Wilson, MD. In addition to being a founding member of ASCO, Dr. Wright also served as its Secretary/Treasurer until 1967.

“Dr. Wright’s story is unbelievably inspiring and even astounding. Imagine an African American woman sitting with six white men in 1964 and dreaming of an organization that would be focused on the clinical care of patients with cancer,” said Dr. Hudis. “What’s amazing about Jane is first simply that she was there. Being a woman in that situation then was a breakthrough, and being an African American was a breakthrough, but to be both was unbelievable.”

That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Dr. Wright to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. The commission’s recommendations, including an emphasis on better communication among doctors, hospitals, and research institutions, resulted in the establishment of a national network of cancer treatment centers.

In addition to having a full and rewarding professional career, Dr. Wright had a fulfilling personal life, marrying David D. Jones, Jr, a lawyer, in 1947, and raising two daughters, Jane Wright Jones and Alison Jones. Mr. Jones died in 1976.

Lifetime of Achievements

In 1967, Dr. Wright was named Professor of Surgery, Head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and Associate Dean at New York Medical College, making her the highest ranking black woman at an American medical institution. Four years later, Dr. Wright became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society.

After a 40-year career in medical oncology, Dr. Wright retired in 1987. On February 19, 2013, Dr. Wright died in her home in Guttenberg, New Jersey. She was 93.

Although the existence of African American physicians, especially African American women physicians, was rare in the United States in the early- and mid-20th century, numbering just a few hundred, Dr. Wright discounted any speculation that she was a victim of racial prejudice. According to her obituary in The New York Times,2 Dr. Wright said in an interview with The New York Post in 1967, “I know I’m a member of two minority groups, 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.” And then she added, “It could be I met it—and wasn’t intelligent enough to recognize it.”

Lasting Legacy

To commemorate the contribution Dr. Wright has made to clinical care and cancer research, in 2006 the AACR established the AACR–Minorities in Cancer Research Jane Cooke Wright Lectureship, which recognizes outstanding scientists who have made meritorious contributions to cancer research and furthered the advancement of minority investigators in cancer research. In 2011, ASCO and the Conquer Cancer Foundation recognized Dr. Wright’s life achievements to the field of oncology with the creation of the Jane C. Wright, MD, Young Investigator Award.

“The Young Investigator Award is a wonderful way to perpetuate Jane’s view and vision of how life and scientific advances should be accomplished. We know that most of the award winners go on to have remarkably productive careers as measured by their scientific contributions and service, and that is the best way to honor her memory,” said Dr. Hudis. “There is a real reward in a lifetime of dedication to a goal, and I think that’s what Jane’s life was all about. She did it in a way that was inspirational to our oncology community, but also to her family, and her children were so proud of her for this. Jane set an example for all of us of how to live a rewarding life.” ■

References

1. Wright JC, Cobb JP, Gumport SL, et al: Investigation of the relationship between clinical and tissue response to chemotherapeutic agents on human cancer. N Engl J Med 257:1207-1211, 1957.

2. Weber B: Jane Wright, oncology pioneer, dies at 93. New York Times, March 2, 2013.


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