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A Eulogy in Honor of ASCO Founder Jane C. Wright, MD

Dec 03, 2013

By Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP

Jane C. Wright, MD, FASCO, an oncology pioneer and one of ASCO's seven founding members, passed away on February 19, 2013. ASCO President Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, honored Dr. Wright at a memorial service on November 30, 2013, held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City. Following are his remarks.

Dr. Jane Wright 1962 
 Dr. Wright, 1962
My name is Clifford Hudis. I am here because, in addition to my role as the Chief of the Breast Cancer Medicine Service across town at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, I have the honor of serving as the President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, now entering its 50th year. As we join today, on what would have been Dr. Wright’s 94th birthday had she not left us this past February 19th, it is humbling for me, representing ASCO and reflecting on its contributions over the past half-century, to draw your attention to the simple fact that ASCO exists in large part because of her drive, vision, focus, determination, and optimism—characteristics of hers that will be described by several people today and that had to have been central to her effectiveness and impact.

Dr. Wright was one of the seven founding members of ASCO and—as was probably typical of so many of her pioneering accomplishments—was the only founder who was neither white nor male, a reality she noted but never dwelled upon.

That she would achieve greatness could never have been in doubt. She was descended from intellectual pioneers, both medical and otherwise. Her father, Louis T. Wright, was among the first African-American graduates of Harvard Medical School and her mother, Corinne Cooke, was a public school teacher here in NYC. Remarkably, his father was a physician educated at what later became Meharry.

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.”

Following her father’s guidance, she devoted her career to the treatment of cancer, conducting both laboratory and clinical trials that introduced the modern era of cancer treatment to New York City, the nation, and the world. After she graduated from Ethical Culture in 1938, she studied Art at Smith and then graduated from New York Medical College in 1945 with honors. After training at Bellevue and Harlem Hospital, she joined her father at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center, which he had founded, and together they studied chemotherapy drugs, including, for the first time, methotrexate—a drug in widespread use today for not only cancer but other serious autoimmune diseases, and a drug that remains critical to the welfare of millions. Indeed, I ordered it this past week in my office. She laid the foundation for decades of careful studies leading ultimately to sequential adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer (my field) and combination regimens that cured and transformed treatment for malignancies ranging from acute leukemia to lung cancer. It is not possible to estimate or to overestimate the number of lives her work saved and extended.

 Dr. Jane Wright, 1967
Dr. Wright, 1967
Despite the magnitude of her work and contributions, it is clear that she was never satisfied and always reached for more. With her husband, the prominent attorney David D. Jones, she raised two children—Jane, who has spoken, and Allison, who will follow on the program—but she still had time to develop and lead her scientific and clinical communities. In 1955, Dr. Wright became an Associate Professor of Surgical Research at New York University and Director of Cancer Chemotherapy Research at New York University Medical Center and its affiliated Bellevue and University Hospitals. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. In 1967, she was named Professor of Surgery, Head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and Associate Dean at New York Medical College, her alma mater. At a time when African-American women physicians numbered only a few hundred in the entire United States, Dr. Wright was the highest-ranking black woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. In 1977, she became the first woman President of the New York Cancer Society,

As I mentioned earlier, she was the only African-American and the only woman to join six men in 1964 at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago to plan for ASCO. That hotel didn’t last beyond 1967 but these innovators did! They held their first scientific meeting in April 1965, coincident with that year’s American Association of Cancer Research meeting, the latter organization (represented today by its CEO Dr. Marge Foti) providing support and, indeed, a collection of “hand-me-down” papers that had not been accepted by its Program Committee but were judged of interest to the group of 70 physicians focused solely on clinical care who met that first time.

Today, ASCO has more than 33,000 members, of whom about one-third are from outside the U.S. It is by far the largest educational and research organization supporting quality clinical cancer care around the world. But it did not have to be so and, indeed, Dr. Wright’s vision for ASCO, complementing, collaborating, and supporting other important organizations, was critical to its success. She served as our first Secretary/Treasurer, the latter a role I filled for three years before my own election as President, but lacking the benefit of our current professional staff I can only marvel at the courage to embark on this journey as a pioneer. But then again, it seems that pioneering was her forte. Indeed, about the founding of ASCO she said, “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.” There is no better description of ASCO’s goals and vision than her own words.

Recognizing her contributions, and wishing to honor them in the most effective way possible, in 2011 ASCO awarded the first Jane C. Wright Young Investigator Award to a trainee pursuing clinically relevant research with an accomplished mentor in an established and productive environment through our Conquer Cancer Foundation. Usually the first grant a young clinical scientist receives, these can be transformative, giving them a first taste of independent support and research success and launching, we hope, a lifetime of contributions. If any of these grantees accomplish a fraction of what Dr. Wright did, then this commemorative investment will have been one of our very best.

I remember turning to my right in Chicago and seeing her with her family honoring the first recipients of this award. Her joy was contagious and she honored us by continuing to attend ASCO every year she could.

I hope the video that follows will help everyone here see why she was so critical to ASCO and such a unique American and New Yorker. Thank you for allowing me to share in this celebration of her life.

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