Dr Jane C Wright: The Pioneer of Cancer research

Heather C – Year 12 Student

Editor’s note: This short essay was was entered into the GSAL Black History Month Essay Competition 2022. The purpose of the competition was to encourage students to undertake independent research, think critically and communicate clearly about any aspect of black history specific to the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The challenge was to write a 500-word essay on any aspect of black history in the field of STEM. CPD

There’s lot’s of fun in exploring the unknown, There’s no greater thrill than in having an experiment turn out in such a way that you make a positive contribution.

Dr. J. Wright

Harlem: 1949; as the world struggled down the endless road to recovery following the destruction of WW2, Dr Jane C Wright broke through the glass ceiling that had hindered scientists across the ages: creating a safe and effective treatment for cancer. Along with her father, she conducted ground breaking research that would prove to play a pivotal role in the treatment of one of the deadliest diseases of the modern era. Whether it being her research into anti-cancer chemicals that could provide much-needed hope for Leukaemia patients, or her seminal work into the treatment of breast cancer, Dr Wright’s research truly laid the foundations for cancer treatment and for that she deserves to be immortalised within the history of medicine.

At the time of her emergence, into the field there were very few African American doctors, and the industry fraught with discrimination, and the establishment of the Civil Rights Movement lying unforeseen on a distant and inaccessible horizon. Despite this, Jane was able to break through the barriers, taking her place as a trail blazer who cleared the way for others to follow; it is simply not possible to build a picture of the African American contribution to the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) without her acknowledgement.

Out of all Jane’s pioneering discoveries, the introduction of nitrogen mustard agents as a means of treating Leukaemia truly deserves to be seen as the beginning of her contribution to the field of oncology. As a result of this discovery, she would go on to oversee the transformation of chemotherapy from a highly speculative and often volatile drug to an established staple of cancer treatment that is still used in hospitals today.

 However, the influence of her research did not end there; far from it.

Subsequently, because of this discovery, in 1951Jane established the efficacy of using methotrexate as a treatment for breast cancer which truly laid the foundations for treating tumours with chemotherapy, another life-saving treatment that prevents around 28% of cancer patients from losing their battle to this monstrous disease each year, a statistic that would simply not be without her challenging work and determination to make an impact in clinical care. Not only that, she championed the development of combination chemotherapy, using multiple chemotherapy drug in various doses and sequences. Again, the research proved to be crucial in the process of taking the treatment from scarce and unreliable, to a treatment that has stood the test of time.

In recognition of her research and her contribution to the field of oncology, she received many awards and authored 135 scientific papers, all while being the ranked African American woman in a nationally recognised medical institution; she was truly an inspirational role model in her field, and demonstrated repeatedly that you cannot let other people define the limit of your success. Throughout her career, Jane strove to establish standards for clinical oncology, improving the knowledge of the field and helping to make a field, often seen as inaccessible and confusing. From that fateful day in 1949 on which she made her ground-breaking discovery, Dr Jane C Wright has continuously proven that there can be no greater thrill than navigating the unfamiliar, demonstrated by her famous statement:

“There’s lot’s of fun in exploring the unknown, There’s no greater thrill than in having an experiment turn out in such a way that you make a positive contribution.”





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