Dr. Jane Wright: Cancer Pioneer

Anushree J – 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

Born in 1919, Dr Jane Cooke Wright is recognised for transforming the administration of cancer chemotherapy and for exploring the relationship between patient and tissue culture response. Her findings have paved the way for further research and development of cancer chemotherapy.

Jane Wright was the daughter of one of the first African American graduates of Harvard medical School, Dr Louis Wright. Whilst originally intending to become an artist, it was her father who persuaded her to enter the field of Oncology. Thus, after graduating from New York Medical College in 1945, Wright began working alongside her father at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research centre in 1949.

Here, she conducted some of her most ground-breaking research.

In mid-20th century, as chemotherapy was still in its experimental stages, it was only used as a last resort. However, at Harlem Hospital, Dr Jane and her father began researching various anti-cancer agents to use as chemotherapy drugs. Dr Wright was one of the first researchers to test the effect of anticancer drugs. As she used samples of cancerous human tissue for her drug trials rather than lab rats, this meant that she was able to directly observe the effect of the drug on the patient’s cells without the patient themselves having to ingest the drug. Her anticancer drugs were successful, and many of the cancerous tumours were killed faster with her method of chemotherapy in comparison to the popular practice of radiation therapy.

As her trials continued, Dr Wright also began to discover more potential uses of drug therapy and methods of administering chemotherapy.  For example, she tested the efficacy of methotrexate (an anti-folate agent) against breast and prostate cancer with successful results; methotrexate is now a key constituent of chemotherapy for breast and ovarian cancer in modern day.

Her research continued until, in 1952 after her father’s death, Dr Jane Wright became the head of the Cancer Research Foundation.

In 1964, Dr Jane Wright was the only woman and African American to cofound the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), a society that still holds global medical conferences today.

Furthermore, in 1967, Dr Wright was appointed by President Johnson to serve on the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke. She was also recognised as the highest-ranking African American woman in any US medical institution for her work in chemotherapy. 

As Dr Wright’s research continued at the New York Medical College, she created numerous programs to instruct doctors in chemotherapy. In 1971, Dr Wright became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society where she led delegations of cancer researchers to Africa, China and the Soviet Union.

Despite living amidst extreme segregation, (as she was a female person of colour), Wright was one of the leading physician scientists of her time. Alongside publishing several research papers on cancer chemotherapy, she obtained accolades like the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award for her contributions to medicine.

In today’s world, Dr Wright’s work has given cancer patients a second chance to live.

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