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The pioneering women of blood cancer research: part one

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Updated 08 Mar 2019

To mark International Women’s Day, we celebrate two incredible women in the field of blood cancer research, beginning with the inspirational story of Dr Jane C Wright.

Defying the odds was in Jane Wright’s blood.

She was born in Manhattan in 1919 – a year before women in America would win the right to vote – and would pioneer the development of chemotherapy. But the medical profession was very nearly deprived of one of its leading lights.

Jane took great inspiration from her father. He’d been amongst the first African American graduates of Harvard Medical School, and believed Jane’s talent lay in medicine. But Jane decided to pursue her own path and she completed her art degree in 1942.

Art's loss is science's gain

Jane was thankfully persuaded to follow in the family tradition, and in 1945 she graduated from the New York Medical School at the top of her class.

Jane took up her first residencies at a time when there were just a handful of African Americans – and even fewer women – in the medical profession. During a time of extreme discrimination, long before the establishment of the civil rights movement, she would blaze a trail for others to follow.

In 1949 Jane united with her father at Harlem Hospital’s Cancer Research Foundation.

Transforming blood cancer medicine

Over the next decade they introduced nitrogen mustard agents, similar to the mustard gas compounds used in World War I, to treat leukaemia patients. This research was truly ground-breaking, and Jane would oversee the transformation of chemotherapy from a hypothetical, experimental drug, to an established and effective pillar of cancer medicine.

Jane’s research had implications much further than blood cancer. She was the first to identify that a drug called methotrexate could be used to treat a range of solid tumours. Methotrexate has since become the backbone of modern chemotherapy, and is used to this day to treat leukaemia, lymphoma and many other types of cancer.

Jane also championed the development of combination chemotherapy – the use of multiple chemotherapy drugs in varying doses and sequences. This approach was crucial to increasing survival rates for childhood leukaemia treatment, which still uses many of the same chemotherapy drugs as it did 60 years ago.

A career of firsts

During a long and distinguished career Jane published more than 100 research papers on chemotherapy. She continued to break down barriers, and in 1964 was only woman among the seven co-founders of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In 1971 she set another milestone as she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society.

After a long and fruitful career of cancer research, Dr Jane C Wright retired in 1987.

> Read part two of our international women's day series, the story of Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Elion