Jane C Wright – A Forgotten Pioneer in Cancer Research

Photo Credit | 2013 ASCO

Frontiers for Young Minds takes you down on a dive into the depths of the historical scientific archives and introduces you to scientists you may have not heard about, but you definitely should! This time, we tell you the story of a scientist who made a major contribution to chemotherapy.

By Hannah Baines

Cancer is one of the biggest areas of research in medical science. Since the late 1800s, many scientists have played a role in our current understanding of cancer. Some are celebrated by the public. Others, like Jane C. Wright, have not become as famous despite being highly respected in her field. 

Early life

In 1919, Jane Cooke Wright was born in Manhattan, New York into a family of doctors. Her father Louis T. Wright was one of the first black graduates from Harvard Medical School and the first black doctor at a public hospital in New York City.

Wright was a talented artist and originally began studying art at Smith College in Massachusetts until her father suggested changing to medical studies. She went on to earn a scholarship to study medicine in New York Medical College. She graduated in 1945 after only three years!

Cancer research career and the rise of chemotherapy

After graduation, Wright joined her father in working at the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital. It was here that she began her career in cancer research.

Chemotherapy is the use of medicines to treat cancer and kill cancer cells. In the 1940s, chemotherapy was still fairly experimental and used as a last resort. Wright’s father, Louis, had begun researching anti-cancer chemicals. Louis focused on the laboratory research and Wright ran the trials in patients. 

A major breakthrough occurred in 1951 when Wright and her colleagues found that a drug called Methotrexate was effective in treating breast cancer. This drug is still used widely today to treat a number of different cancers.

After her father’s death in 1952, Wright took over as head of the Cancer Research Foundation at 33 years old. Wright continued her father’s work on chemotherapy and helped to make chemotherapy what it is today. 

The beginnings of personalized medicine

In 1955 Wright became an Associate Professor of surgical research and Director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University. Here, she began to focus her research on personalized medicine. 

Traditionally, the same medicine would have been given to all people with the same disease. The issue with this approach is that there are many differences in each individual that can cause medications to work differently. The idea of personalized medicine is to choose the best treatment for a patient based on their unique genetic characteristics. 

Wright led the way in using patient tumor samples to help decide the best treatment options. In these experiments, she would remove a small piece of a patient's tumor and then grow the cells in a laboratory. These cells were then treated with different drugs to try to predict which would work best for a patient. Wright’s work on personalized medicine was the first step toward many of the treatment options we have today.

Uniting the cancer research community

Wright was passionate about making sure that her research was benefiting everyone. She and six other cancer specialists formed the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 1964. Wright was the only black founding member of this group as well as the only woman - a remarkable distinction for that time period. The American Society of Clinical Oncology aimed to help educate doctors, provide training on cancer care, and help fund research.

The end of an amazing career

Wright became Professor of surgery and Head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department at New York Medical College in 1967. At this time, she was the highest ranking black woman among all American medical schools. In 1987, Wright retired after a 40-year career, in which she published over 100 research papers and made a huge contribution to cancer research. She held leadership positions in numerous associations, won several awards including the American Association for Cancer Research Award and was recognized for her work by an eponymous award and lecture.

Wright died at age 93 in 2013. The president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology at the time, Sandra Swain said “Jane Wright was very strong. For any woman to achieve what she did was rare. I'm in awe of her.”

Do you know the story of a forgotten scientist that should be heard? Email us with your idea at kids@frontiersin.org!