Jane Cooke Wright, MD, ASCO Cofounder, Dies at 93 

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Coming together as a group we could improve quality of care, because knowledge is power, and sharing information among ourselves … would give us the greatest chance of increasing awareness and saving lives.

—Jane Cooke Wright, MD

The practice of oncology advances incrementally; each step forward, no matter how painfully small at times, leads to the next. The oncology community readily offers tribute to predecessors in the field who took those first steps into the uncharted regions of cancer care, without which today’s successes would never have been possible. So it is fitting that, with sadness, we offer tribute to a doctor who left an indelible imprint on the treatment of people with cancer. Jane Cooke Wright, MD, died on February 19, 2013. She was 93. 

Early Life and Career

Born in 1919 in New York, Dr. Wright came of age during the vibrant cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father was a physician, one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Harvard Medical School. 

Dr. Wright’s robust academic pursuits were balanced with a zest for the arts and sports; she swam competitively during her years at Smith College. An art major at first, Dr. Wright switched to pre-med. She received her MD degree from New York Medical School in 1945, and did her internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Two years later she married attorney David Dallas Jones, Jr, with whom she had two daughters.

Her father’s continuing influence proved to be career-shaping. After her internship at Bellevue, Dr. Wright continued her training at Harlem Hospital, where her father was the founding Director of the hospital’s Cancer Research Foundation. In 1949, her father asked her to join the Foundation, and her interest in cancer research took a significant leap forward. The father and daughter team did basic bench research in leukemia, testing various agents in mouse models. After seeing activity, they began treating patients with early chemotherapies. 

Compelled by a desire to broaden her scope of cancer care, Dr. Wright moved on in 1955, continuing her research interests at New York University Bellevue Medical Center. In 1967, she became head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department and Professor of Surgery at New York Medical College, where she created a program to teach physicians how to use chemotherapy and conduct clinical research. 

Her research in new chemotherapy techniques and drug interactions led to the establishment of a database that was used to cross-reference information from patients and tissue culture response to drugs. Her groundbreaking work caught the attention of policymakers on Capitol Hill, and in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson invited Dr. Wright to join the subcommittee of the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. Her suggestions led to the establishment of nationwide regional cancer centers.

Role in Founding ASCO

As befits a career filled with firsts, in 1964 Dr. Wright was one of ASCO’s founding members. At that time, she was sometimes referred to as “the mother of chemotherapy,” a tribute to her early work in the emerging field. She was elected as the organization’s first Secretary-Treasurer, a position she held until 1967. A photograph of ASCO’s seven original founders, six white men and one young African-American woman, all of diverse backgrounds, reflects a profound storyline that held true throughout Dr. Wright’s life. Her countenance conveys no trace of loneliness at being the only woman and only African-American. Instead, she portrays unflinching unity with her colleagues and ASCO’s original charter—the common concern for the patient with cancer. 

Dr. Wright spoke of that sense of unity: “Coming together as a group we could improve quality of care, because knowledge is power, and sharing information among ourselves … would give us the greatest chance of increasing awareness and saving lives.” 

Fighting the Good Fight

Her long career would be marked throughout by her continued work in the oncology community and her association with leading organizations such as ASCO and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), which, in 2006, established the AACR-Minorities in Cancer Research Jane Cooke Wright Lectureship. Its first recipient, Olufunmilayo I. Olopade, MD, a Nigerian scientist and researcher, remarked that she was particularly impressed by the work Dr. Wright did “as a woman of color in the 1960s, and how progressive ASCO was to embrace her as an officer.” In 2011, ASCO and the Conquer Cancer Foundation formally recognized Dr. Wright’s contributions to the field of oncology through the creation of the Jane C. Wright, MD, Young Investigator Award.

In a 2010 interview, Dr. Wright said that the best advice she ever received was from her father, who told her to never give up the good fight, never fear failure, and know that to help others in a worthy mission is a noble goal for one’s life. When asked what advice she would give oncologists and ASCO members today, she said, “I would tell ASCO members to work hard, persevere, collaborate with one another, be pioneers in the field, and keep up the good fight.” ■