Women’s History Month: Medical Pioneer Jane Cooke Wright

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was a surgeon and cancer researcher who developed the technique of testing the effect of chemotherapy drugs on human tissue samples rather than laboratory mice. This breakthrough significantly advanced cancer treatment. 

Jane Cooke Wright in 1919

Dr. Wright was born in New York in 1919 and grew up in a family where both her father and grandfather were prominent physicians. Her uncle was also a physician who became president of Meharry Medical College.

After graduating from Smith College with a degree in art, Dr. Wright received a full scholarship to New York Medical College. Three years after being placed in their accelerated program, she graduated at the top of her class in 1945. She married in 1947 and began working with her father at the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital in 1949.

At that time chemotherapy was a relatively new, even experimental, treatment for cancer. In an effort to make this therapy more available, Dr. Wright, her father and their team began studying the effects of various drugs on solid tumors. She was the first to determine that the drug methotrexate was an effective treatment against cancer. Her work identified treatments for both skin and breast cancer and brought chemotherapy into the mainstream of modern cancer treatment.

Dr. Wright continued contributing to the medical profession and cancer research both nationally and internationally. In 1971, she was named associate dean at New York Medical College and was the highest-ranking African American at an American medical school at that time. She passed away in 2013.

Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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