Louis Tompkins Wright, scholar, medical researcher, war hero and political activist, is a "first" in many regards. He was one of America's first African American surgeons who made significant contributions in surgical and internal medicine research. According to L. Haber in Black Pioneers of Science, other "firsts" accomplished by Dr. Wright include:
• First African American physician appointed to the staff of a New York municipal hospital
• First African American surgeon hired by the New York City police department (1929)
• First to experiment with Aureomycin, an antibiotic, on humans
• First African American surgeon to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons
• First African American physician in America to head a public interracial hospital.
He was keen on preparing the way for fellow African Americans in the medical profession, so strove for high standards of medical care that could only be accomplished by physicians on the basis of ability and educational excellence rather than racial preference. And, with the same premise, he strove for patient rights for equal access to treatment and hospital: "disease respects neither riches nor race and that inadequate medical care given to one section of a city may bring epidemics to even the wealthiest community members. He opposed the separate but equal philosophy prevalent during his lifetime.
Louis Wright was born in July 23, 1891 in Georgia. His father, Dr. Ceah Wright, was a prominent physician who left practice to become a minister. He died in 1895. To support the family, Louis' mother became a teacher and, out of necessity, enrolled Louis in first grade at age four. She remarried in 1899. Louis' stepfather, Dr. Fletcher Penn, was Yale University's first African American medical school graduate. With his stepfather's outstanding achievements, his Atlanta practice and community standing was impressive. This helped formulate Louis' view that medical standards could not be influenced by segregation.
With his upbringing in an elite community that highly regarded his family, he was well into his teens when he had his first experience with racial discrimination during the 1907 Atlanta race riot. Graduating valedictorian in 1911, he entered Harvard Medical School. It was there he once again experienced racial slights, having to fight for equal schooling. He was denied entrance to the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society despite being ranked fourth in his class and, graduating cum laude in 1915, he was ordered to attend the graduation at the end of the procession rather than the front—his rightful position because of his academic achievements.
He completed his internship in 1916 after finally finding a hospital, Freedmen's, to accept him in Washington, D.C. During his internship, he excelled as a clinical researcher. He conducted a medical experiment resulting in a paper, "The Schick Test with Especial Reference to the Negro," published in the Journal of Infectious Disease in 1917 with his significant conclusions regarding diphtheria and using the Schick Test in the African American population.
After internship, he returned to Atlanta where he was faced with more prejudice, so became an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as Atlanta treasurer and, later, as chairman of the national board of directors in 1948 until his death in 1952.
During WWI, he entered the Army as a first lieutenant in the Medical Corps, earned a Purple Heart for his service (1917-1919) and was discharged a captain. While stationed in France, he was first hand the German's weapon, phosgene gas, which permanently damaged his lungs, but he continued to serve, eventually being placed in charge of the surgical triage wards in the field, which gave him hospital administration experience he would later put to use.
In 1919, he returned to his medical profession. In 1920, he was appointed as permanent staff at Harlem Hospital in NYC. He was instrumental in a Civil Service-initiated reorganization of the hospital system, which was completed in 1929, in protest of the dilapidated conditions of the hospital, poor patient care standards, and unprofessionalism of its staff. The changes brought the institution to national eminence.
Soon after the reform, another upset resulted in a 1936 publication, Opportunities for the Medical Education of Negroes, outlining investigative results emphasizing that African Americans must be welcomed by tax-supported institutions. He took on other African American professional organizations as he strove for equal access. In 1931, he was able to stop the establishment of an all-black hospital in NYC.
Other significant accomplishments during his medical career include the introduction of the intradermal method of vaccination, and numerous papers on bone surgery, head injuries, his invention of a metal blade plate to support fractures on the long bones in the leg, and a neck brace. He also challenged the contention that biological factors caused African Americans to harbor more syphilis and infectious diseases than the general population. He was instrumental in founding the Harlem Hospital cancer research center
In 1939, he contracted tuberculosis and spent three years in Ithaca NY recovering. In 1940, he won the NAACP Springarn Medal. After his recovery, he was offered the Director of the Department of Surgery at Harlem Hospital. It was there that he oversaw a multiracial research project for new antibiotics (aureomycin and terramycin) and published papers on their effectiveness in fighting venereal disease, whooping cough, pneumonia and other diseases.
In 1948, Dr. Wright was elected president of the hospital board. Still in this position in 1952, the Harlem Hospital named the new library after him (he had started the first library in 1934). At the celebratory dinner, with more than 1,000 guests in attendance, Eleanor Roosevelt praised him.
He died in October 1952. It is said, wherever he went, in civilian life or in Army life, Louis T. Wright stood up for what he believed and always maintained his self-respect.
Compiled from: http://www.answers.com/topic/louis-wright; http://northbysouth.kenyon.edu/1998/health/wright.htm; http://www.forloveofliberty.net/stories/dr-louis-t-wright-advocating-equality/42; and http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/wright-louis-t-1891-1952.