"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Louis T. Wright, M.D.

"There is no use saving the Negro from being lynched, or educating for sound citizenship if he is to die prematurely as a result of murderous neglect by America's health agencies solely on account of his race or color." ~ Dr. Louis Wright, 1937

Louis Tomkins Wright was born in LaGrange, Georgia, on July 23, 1891. His father was a doctor who had left medical practice to go into ministry and was a district superintendent for the Methodist Episcopal Church at the time of his death in 1895. Wright's stepfather, Fletcher Penn, was also a physician, being the first African American graduate of Yale Medical School. He practiced in Atlanta.

Wright received a bachelor's degree from Clark Atlanta University where he was class valedictorian, and was admitted to Harvard Medical School. He graduated fourth in his class yet was unable to find an internship in the Boston area. He was accepted by Freedmen's Hospital in Washington DC (affiliated with Howard University), and while there researched the use of the Schick test for diphtheria on African Americans.

Wright returned to Atlanta where he went into practice with his stepfather. In 1916 NAACP Field Secretary James Weldon Johnson came to Atlanta to start a local chapter. Wright joined and was elected treasurer. This marked the beginning of his life-long friendship with Walter White who was chapter secretary. At the outbreak of World War I Wright joined the Army Medical Corps and served in France, where he won a Purple Heart after being exposed to phosgene gas.

After the war, Wright settled in New York City, where he worked for the Health Department at applied for staff privileges at Harlem Hospital. When he was hired at the hospital six months later, four white physicians resigned in protest and Dr. Cosmo O'Neal, the hospital director who hired him, was transferred to working the gate-booth at Bellevue Hospital. However, other African American doctors were subsequently hired and the New York City Civil Service Commission reorganized the administration of the city's hospitals, creating the Department of Hospitals. By 1929 Wright had been promoted to assistant visiting surgeon and was also named NYPD Police Surgeon. He became the first African American to become a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (1934) and to become a Board Certified Surgeon, one year after the Board was created (1939).

Inspired by the discrimination he had experienced and overcome throughout his career, Wright fought for equality in medical education and in medical care for all people. He continued be be active with the NAACP and was elected to its Board of Directors in 1931, becoming Chairman in 1934. Reunited with Walter White, who had become Executive Director, he secured funding from the Carnegie Foundation to research and make recommendations concerning health care needs of African Americans. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1940.

In 1939 Wright was stricken with tuberculosis, likely due to lung damage during the war, and was hospitalized in Ithica, New York, for most of the next three years. Returning to the staff at Harlem Hospital in 1942, he was named Director of the Department of Surgery, and the physical limitations from his illness led him to concentrate on research. He developed a metal plate for knee fractures and a neck brace, as well as becoming known as becoming known as an expert on head injuries and skull fractures. He headed the team that first used Aureomycin, and published over 35 papers on the use of antibiotics. He was also one of the pioneers of chemotherapy in treating cancer. In total, he had approximately 100 papers published in medical journals.

The library at Harlem Hospital was named in Wright's honor months before he passed away on October 8, 1952 at the age of 60. Colleague Aubrey Maynard, who had been the first African American intern at Harlem Hospital in 1926, wrote these words recalling the occasion:

“Like some of his era, [Wright] had viewed with cold horror the scene of a lynching. He had known the surging fury of defiance when a mob moved toward his home and family. From boyhood he had felt the spur and the obligation to gain educational and professional status to fulfill the aspirations of devoted parents. He had been a black soldier in a white man’s army which fostered segregation and seethed with prejudice and injustice. Through the depression he had struggled to support his family as a doctor in the ghetto. Physical disability had eroded his strength. He had learned the promises and evasions and maneuvers—and occasionally the successes—of political life in a racist society. Step by step, he had gained professional and personal stature. Now, at his celebration of his sixtieth birthday, he cherished the hope that untold thousands would pass to fulfilled lives through the doors that he had opened. His friends, who remembered the long years, rejoiced with him.”
The above quotation is from the  June 2000 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, which contains an excellent article on Dr. Wright and the status of health care for African Americans at the time of his research.

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