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A native of La Grange, Georgia, Dr. Louis T. Wright (1891-1952), was an accomplished surgeon, researcher, activist, and a decorated war veteran. The son of formerly enslaved parents, his father and stepfather, were also a physicians. Wright’s father died when he was four years old. His mother married physician William Fletcher Penn when he was 8.
A graduate of Clark University, Wright earned a bachelors degree in 1911 followed by a medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1915. While at Harvard, he protested when denied permission to help deliver babies at a teaching hospital due to his race. Wright initially began his activism while a student at Harvard. He left medical school for 3 weeks to join the NAACP picketing of the film, “Birth Of A Nation”. After returning to Harvard, he graduated fourth in his class in 1915.
During his military career, he served in France as a doctor and captain in the United States Army during World War I. Wright was instrumental in saving the lives of countless soldiers during the war. Exposed to poison gas during the war, Wright developed a lifelong respiratory illness. For his service, he was awarded a purple heart. While serving in the army, he introduced the use of intradermal vaccinations for small pox during World War I. After the war, he moved to New York City. In 1919 he became the first African American appointed to the surgical staff at Harlem Hospital. The white medical superintendent who hired Wright, was severely criticized and eventually demoted for hiring him. Several white physicians on staff also resigned to protest his hiring. Unhappy with the run down condition of the hospital, he was instrumental in raising the standard of patient care and professionalism of the staff as well as advocating that African American physicians be given the same employment, internship, and training opportunities as white physicians.
Wright devoted his entire career to increasing opportunities for African American physicians. He eventually became Chief of Surgery at Harlem Hospital. While there he also launched a scholarly publication, the, “Harlem Hospital Bulletin” and established a medical library at the hospital. Wright remained part of the hospital staff until 1949 in various capacities. During his medical career he also founded the cancer research center at Harlem Hospital and also became the first African American to serve as the NAACP national board chair. During a speech given to NAACP membership in 1937, Wright stated,
“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.”
Wright was also very active in protesting commonly held medical misconceptions that African Americans, due to biological factors, tended to have greater amounts of syphilis and other infectious diseases more than the general population. He shared these views in the NAACP publication, “Crisis”. A staunch advocate against racism, and prejudice, he was committed to desegregation of hospitals and improving training and education opportunities for African American physicians. During his career he authored 89 scientific papers; several of which were integral to improving treatment of bone fractures and also conducted groundbreaking cancer research. In 1949 he was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal. Wright died from tuberculosis in 1952.
“Louis Tompkins Wright,” in W. Augustus Low & Virgin A. Cliff, Encyclopedia of Black America (New York: Da Capo Press, 1981); “History of Medicine: The Wright Stuff,” American Legacy Magazine 10:3 (Fall 2004).