Black History Month Profiles: Dr. Jane Cooke Wright

Dr. Jane Wright
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright

Breaking barriers in the battle against cancer, Dr. Jane Wright’s legacy continues to inspire us all.  A pioneer in chemotherapeutic research, she dedicated her life to saving others.

Wright's family had a strong history of academic achievement in medicine. She was born in Manhattan, New York, to Corinne Cooke, a public school teacher, and Louis Wright, who was one of the first African American graduates from Harvard Medical School. He was the first African American doctor at a public hospital in New York City. During his 30 years working at the Harlem Hospital, he founded and directed the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation. Louis T. Wright's biological father, Dr. Ceah Ketcham Wright, was born into slavery but graduated from medical school, before dying when Louis Wright was four years old. 

As a child, Wright attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, from which she graduated in 1938. During her time at the Fieldston School, Wright was very involved in extracurricular activities. She served as the school's yearbook art editor and was named the captain of the swim team. Her favorite subjects to study were math and science. After attending the Fieldston School, Wright received a scholarship to Smith College, where she furthered her studies and continued to be very involved in extracurricular activities. She swam on the varsity swim team, discovered a passion for the German language, and lived in the school's German house for a while. Wright graduated with an art degree from Smith College in 1942. After her time at Smith, Wright received another scholarship, to attend the New York Medical College.  She graduated as a part of an accelerated three-year program at the top of her class in 1945 with an honors award.

Wright graduated with honors from New York Medical College in 1945. She interned at Bellevue Hospital from 1945 to 1946, serving nine months as an assistant resident in internal medicine. While completing a residency at Harlem Hospital from 1947 to 1948, she married David Jones, Jr., a Harvard Law School graduate. After a six-month leave for the birth of her first child in 1948, she returned to complete her training at Harlem Hospital as chief resident.

In January 1949, Wright was hired as a staff physician with the New York City Public Schools and continued as a visiting physician at Harlem Hospital. After six months she left the school position to join her father, director of the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital.

Despite the hesitation towards chemotherapy at the time, Dr. Jane Wright, along with her father, focused their research on anti-cancer chemicals. In 1949, the two started testing new chemicals for effective anti-cancer properties on human leukemias and other cancers. This research led to her seminal work in 1951 which established the efficacy of methotrexate in treating breast cancer. This research laid the foundations for treating tumors with chemotherapy.

Following Dr. Louis Wright's death in 1952, Dr. Jane Wright was appointed head of the Cancer Research Foundation, at the age of 33.

She was appointed associate dean and head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department at New York Medical College in 1967, apparently the highest-ranked African American physician at a prominent medical college at the time, and certainly the highest-ranked African American woman physician.

Wright is credited with developing the technique of using human tissue culture rather than laboratory mice to test the effects of potential drugs on cancer cells. 

Dr. Jane Wright incorporated these goals into her career, especially during her time as associate dean and professor of surgery at New York Medical College where she continued to develop cancer treatment programs. At the time of her appointment to this position in 1967, Dr. Jane Wright was the highest ranked African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. Throughout her career, she held many more high-ranking positions, received many awards, and authored 135 scientific papers all while raising two daughters. Because of her dedication and influence on the field, the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Young Investigator Award was renamed in her honor.

She was determined to make sure her research had an impact in clinical care. To help bridge the gap between hers and others’ research with clinical care, she became one of the founding members of the ASCO. She was also the only woman in the founding group. The ASCO has the goal to set standards for clinical oncology and to improve knowledge of the field by making research and information readily available and easily disseminated. In 1971, she was the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.

Family was also very important to her. Upon receiving the Merit Award from Mademoiselle in 1952, she stated, "My plans for the future are to continue seeking a cure for cancer, to be a good mother to my children and a good wife to my husband."

A true leader in cancer research, her legacy shines brightly, illuminating the path for aspiring scientists and healers in our SUNY Erie community and beyond.


Students at SUNY Erie can choose from more than 70 academic programs with literally thousands of potential outcomes. Considering the work of pioneers like Dr. Wright, ask yourself where your STEM career path might take you. Whether it’s to lead, innovate, or solve, the lesson in Dr. Wright example is to always explore the boundaries of what’s known to discover what’s possible.  SUNY Erie students with their exceptional grit and tenacity are well-prepared to be change-makers. Where will your STEM education take you?