Celebrating Black History: “The Mother of Chemotherapy”

Known as the “mother of chemotherapy,” Dr. Jane C. Wright was a pioneer in clinical cancer chemotherapy and was noted for her contributions in developing the technique of using human tissue culture to test the effects of potential anticancer agents.

February marks the 45th annual celebration of Black History Month, dedicated to honoring and spotlighting the significant works, achievements, and contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to our society and the world. To celebrate, each week throughout Black History Month, Trusted Medical is spotlighting an African American medical pioneer whose groundbreaking contributions changed the course of medicine and paved the way for future generations to come. Click here if you missed last week’s incredible innovator, Dr. Charles R. Drew. This week, we highlight the life of Dr. Jane C. Wright. Keep reading to learn more about Dr. Jane C. Wright and her groundbreaking role in the field of medicine. 

Picture of Dr. Jane C. Wright
Dr. Jane C. Wright

Early Life & Education

Born in New York City, Wright was the older of two daughters to parents Louis Tompkins Wright and Corinne Wright. Wright comes from a medical family, with her father, Louis Tompkins Wright, as one of the first African Americans to earn an M.D. degree from Harvard Medical School. Her grandfather, Dr. Ceah Ketcham Wright, was born enslaved but later earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College and her step-grandfather, Dr. William Fletcher Penn, was the first African American to graduate from Yale Medical College.

Growing up, Wright attended private schools in New York City and graduated from Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Three years later, in 1945, Wright graduated from New York Medical College with honors receiving her M.D. degree after an accelerated three-year program.

In 1949, Dr. Wright was hired as a staff physician with the New York City public schools and continued working as a visiting physician at Harlem Hospital. Wright completed her residency at Harlem Hospital where she would later join her father, Dr. Louis Wright, at the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital. While completing her residency at Harlem Hospital, she married David Jones, Jr., a Harvard Law School graduate.

Professional Career                                                                                     At Harlem Hospital, Dr. Wright and her father would begin directing cancer research to chemotherapy and investigating anti-cancer chemicals. Chemotherapy was mostly experimental at the time, but Wright and her father would work together in the lab to perform the patient trials. In 1949, the two began testing a new chemical on human leukemias and cancers of the lymphatic system. With her father passing in 1952, Wright would be appointed head of the Cancer Research Foundation at the age of 33.

In 1955, Dr. Wright became an associate professor of surgical research at New York University and director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center and its affiliated Bellevue and University hospitals. Her work as director of cancer chemotherapy research developed new techniques for administering cancer chemotherapy and explored the relationship between patient and tissue culture response.

Cancer Research & Studies                                                                    In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to the President’s Commission on heart disease, cancer, and stroke with a series of treatment centers established for these diseases. She was named professor of surgery, head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and associate dean at her alma mater, New York Medical College. Dr. Wright was the highest-ranking African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution at the time.

Wright implemented several programs to study stroke, heart disease, cancer, and created other programs to instruct doctors in chemotherapy. In 1971, she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society and would later go on to be a founding member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, (ASCO), an organization that represents 40,000 oncology professionals and is the largest organization of its kind in the world.

Death & Legacy                                                                                         Dr. Wright published more than 100 papers throughout her career and led delegations of cancer researchers to Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe during her groundbreaking years of cancer research.

She later retired in 1987, but her legacy lives on as her groundbreaking discoveries changed the face of medicine and continued to be used to this day.