Know the scientist: Jane Cooke Wright

Jane Wright pioneered the use of the drug methotrexate to treat breast cancer and skin cancer

January 21, 2021 10:43 am | Updated 12:11 pm IST

Jane Cooke Wright

Jane Cooke Wright

Jane Cooke Wright (1919 – 2013) was an American medical researcher who did pioneer work in chemotherapy. Her contributions to oncology revolutionised cancer treatment across the world.

Jane Wright was born in New York City in 1919 into a family of physicians. Her father, Louis Tompkins Wright, and her paternal grandfather, Ceah Ketcham Wright, were doctors. Louis Tompkins Wright was a well-known surgeon and medical researcher and was the first African-American to be a staff physician at a New York City hospital. Both Jane Cooke Wright and her younger sister, Barbara, followed in the family tradition and became doctors, overcoming both gender and racial bias.

After medical school, Wright worked in Bellevue Hospital (1945–46) and Harlem Hospital (1947–48). Her interest in chemotherapy drugs was sparked when she joined her father in research at the Harlem Cancer Research Center in 1949. Jane Wright studied the reactions of different drugs and chemotherapy techniques on tumours. At the time, chemotherapy was still a nascent area. There was scepticism about chemotherapy and it was not widely practised. Jane Wright’s research transformed that.

Jane Wright pioneered the use of the drug methotrexate to treat breast cancer (in 1951) and skin cancer (1960). She is also credited with developing the technique of using human tissue culture to test the effects of potential drugs on cancer cells. Adjusting treatment according to the individual was an idea forming the basis of much of Wright’s research. Wright also developed non-surgical methods to deliver drugs to tumours, even those deep within the body, using catheter systems.

Following Dr. Louis Wright's death in 1952, Jane Wright was appointed head of the Harlem Cancer Research Foundation. In 1955, she became the director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center and its affiliated Bellevue and University hospitals.

In 1971, Jane Wright became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. She retired from the New York Medical College and active cancer research in 1987. During her life time, she had published 135 scientific papers and written nine books.

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