Meet the woman who changed how we treat cancer

Jane Cooke Wright saved millions by making chemotherapy more effective

Jane Cooke Wright was born into a family of doctors and worked at at time when the number of black female physicians in America numbered in the hundreds. Her grandfather was a graduate of the first medical school for African Americans in the American south, and her father was one of the first black graduates of Harvard Medical School. Her sister, Barbara Wright Pierce, also became a doctor. During a time of extreme discrimination, Wright followed in her family's footsteps and then some, essentially creating the field of medical oncology and inventing chemotherapy methods that helped patients in new ways.

Here are three ways she changed medicine and saved lives. 

1) She was the first doctor to use clinical trials to make cancer treatment more effective.

Cancer was long considered a surgical specialty, because the best known method for attacking tumors was to remove them. When Wright began her work, she pushed the idea of connecting research on mice to research on live tissue cultures, and then comparing those results to tests done with patients in clinical trials. Clinical trials are so common today that it's hard to imagine developing cancer treatments without them. But as Dr. Robert E. Madden, Professor Emeritus of Surgery at New York Medical College, said of her work with patients, we largely have Wright to thank: 

“She recognized the value of placing patients on clinical trials. It was not exactly accepted by the medical public…She looked at it as an opportunity to open the gates to new possibilities in treatment of cancer. In that way she was a trailblazer.” 

Jane Cooke Wright

Illustration by Matteo Farinella

2) She tested new, non-surgical methods of delivering drugs to tumors.

Wright came up with a variety of techniques for injecting chemotherapeutic drugs directly into the bloodstream of patients so that blood vessels would carry the treatment to hard-to reach tumors. Before her work, many cancers were untreatable or required major surgery to treat. Wright tested and proved that drugs could work to treat tumors of the brain and other organs.

A tribute to Wright by the organization she founded in 1964, the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

3) She turned chemotherapy from an untested treatment into one of the most effective, life-saving methods of attacking cancer.

Before Wright did her groundbreaking research on drugs and tumor growth, chemotherapy was a relatively untested way of dealing with one of the world's biggest killers, cancer. Wright doggedly tested a variety of chemical compounds, dosages and order of treatment of multiple drugs to increase effectiveness and reduce side effects. Throughout her career, she built guidelines for cancer treatment, changing the way cancer was treated forever after.