Pioneering Oncologist: The Doctor Who Developed The Chemicals For Chemotheraphy Was A Black Woman


Dr. Jane C. Wright was a pioneering oncologist (cancer specialist) who helped elevate chemotherapy drug treatment from a last resort for cancer patients to the often-effective treatment option that it is today. She also founded a leading professional organization – the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) – that addresses the unique needs of physicians who care for cancer patients.

Coming from a distinguished family of physicians, Jane was born in 1919 in Manhattan, NY where her father, Louis Wright, was a doctor specializing in treating cancer patients. He was also among the first black graduates of Harvard Medical School and was reported to be the first black doctor appointed to the staff of a New York City hospital. Louis’ father was an early graduate of what became the Meharry Medical College – the first medical school in the South for African Americans, founded in Nashville in 1876.

Jane’s mother Corrine was a substitute teacher in the New York school system. After medical school, Jane worked as a doctor for New York City schools and later began her career as a researcher working alongside her father at a cancer center he established at Harlem Hospital in New York.

Why She’s Important: In the medical field that is known today as chemotherapy, Dr. Jane Wright was an innovator. Working with her physician-father at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation, which he established, she was a pioneer in the discovery and development of chemicals that effectively attack and destroy cancer cells. Today in the realm of chemotherapy, such chemicals form the basis of drugs that are viable treatments for most forms of cancer.

Collaborating with her father and others, she studied the effects of a variety of drugs on tumors, experimented with chemotherapeutic agents on leukemia in mice and eventually treated patients, with some success, with new anticancer drugs, including triethylene melamine.

Other Achievements: After her father died in 1952, Jane took over as director of his cancer research foundation, and in 1955 she joined the faculty of the New York University Medical Center as director of cancer research, where her work focused on correlating the responses of tissue cultures to anticancer drugs with the responses of patients.

In 1964, working as part of a team at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine, Dr. Wright developed a non-surgical method, using a catheter system, to deliver heavy doses of anticancer drugs to previously hard-to-reach tumor areas in the kidneys, spleen and elsewhere. That same year, she founded the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which today still functions as key organization that addresses the unique needs of physicians who treat cancer patients.

In 1967, she became head of the chemotherapy department and associate dean at New York Medical College –becoming the first black woman to hold such a high post at an American medical school.

Education: She completed her undergraduate studies at Smith College, where she studied art before turning to medicine. She received a full scholarship to New York Medical College, earning her medical degree in 1945.

She died in 2013 at her home in Guttenberg, N.J. She was 93.

via Jane C. Wright.


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