Forgotten Women: Jane Cooke Wright

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death globally, amounting to nearly 1 in every 6 deaths. Finding new ways to treat cancer has been an ongoing battle, with researchers searching constantly for new drugs, ways to test them, and ways to administer them safely. One important facet of modern cancer treatment is chemotherapy, a branch of treatment that began with the discovery of a handful of foundational drugs. One of those drugs is methotrexate, a folate antimetabolite that inhibits DNA synthesis in growing cancer cells. Identifying this compound’s role as a cancer treatment was a critical step forward in developing chemotherapy as a method for treating cancer, and it was a step forward that would not have been made without Dr. Jane Cooke Wright.

A portrait of Dr. Wright, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Dr. Wright graduated with honors in 1945 from New York Medical College. She obtained a medical degree, and completed her residency in 1948, ending as the hospital’s chief resident. Her research career began in 1955, when she accepted a position at New York University as an associate professor of surgical research and became the director of chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center. It was during this time that she began to work to study the effects of newly created anti-cancer drugs on tumors. She was one of the first to identify the drug methotrexate as a practical and effective treatment against tumors, pioneering the use of chemotherapy as a viable treatment option. Her continued work on chemotherapy drugs led to her pioneering the use of combined chemotherapeutics, in which more than one drug would be used at a time. Dr. Wright focused particularly, however, on methods of administering multiple chemotherapeutics that might minimize side-effects for patients, working on ways to administer anti-cancer drugs in sequence or at different dosages. Her work opened up new avenues for cancer treatment, saving, quite literally, millions of lives.

Wright’s work continued beyond the realm of testing drugs. In 1964, she worked along with a team of other researchers to develop a nonsurgical method for delivering anti-cancer drugs to portions of a patient’s body that were normally difficult to reach. She also worked to pioneer in vitro ways to monitor tumor progression, examining the effects of chemotherapy compounds on tumors in cell culture first rather than in mice. In addition, her clinical focus enabled her to work with patients to methodically test the effects of anti-cancer drugs, making her a pioneer in clinical chemotherapy trials.

Dr. Wright at work. Image courtesy of Smith College.

Wright’s high-impact research work was accompanied by a very esteemed career. She co-founded the American Association for Cancer Research with the goal of fostering clinical research in chemotherapy. She was appointed to the National Cancer Advisory Board by President Lyndon Johnson and served on the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. She sat on the Board of Directors for the American Cancer Society and was appointed the president of the New York Cancer Society in 1971, making her the first woman to hold the position. In 1967, she became the associate dean at New York Medical College. Dr. Wright spent over 50 years as a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and was known for leading delegations of cancer scientists across the globe. Amid all this, Dr. Wright even volunteered her time in 1957 and 1961 to treat cancer patients in Ghana and Kenya, respectively. 

Dr. Wright’s legacy is one of spectacular innovation in cancer research. Her push for clinical trials is the reason why scientists and doctors understand the most effective ways to administer certain cancer drugs, and the methods that she helped to pioneer are still in use today. Her push for clinical chemotherapy moved the treatment method from the laboratory into the hospital room, saving lives even today. While Dr. Wright’s legacy is known among oncology circles, her influence has affected more than just her fellow researchers. Her long research career, coupled with a long career of leadership, made her both an impressive scientist and impressive person.