Louis T. Wright papers
The Louis Tompkins Wright papers, 1909-1997 (inclusive), 1919-1953 (bulk), are the product of Wright’s administrative, professional, activist, writing, and publishing activities throughout his career as a surgeon and social activist who studied medical desegregation, fractures, aureomycin, and chemotherapy. The papers are arranged in six series: I. Correspondence, 1909-1974; II. Chronological Files, 1910-1997; III. Manuscripts and Publications, 1928-1952; IV. Personal and Biographical Records, 1909-1980; V. Scrapbook, 1919-1945; and VI. Photographs, 1918-1973.
- 1909-1997 (inclusive)
- Majority of material found within 1919-1953
Language of Materials
Papers are in English.
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice.
Access to patient and student information is restricted for 80 years from the date of creation. These restrictions appear in Series I and VI. Researchers may apply for access to restricted records. Consult Public Services for further information.
Audio and recordings (as found in Series IV.C) are restricted to access until such time as they can be converted to digital media. Recordings are also subject to the above restrictions; once converted, recordings may be restricted based on the recording's content, title, or as per the restrictions for the folder from which the recording was removed.
Conditions Governing Use
The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all materials in the collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting any third-party copyright holders for permission to reproduce or publish. For more information on the Center's use, publication, and reproduction policies, view our Reproductions and Use Policy.
Extent6.45 cubic feet (2 records center cartons, 1 letter size document box, 1 half letter size document box, 1 legal size document box, and 14 oversized boxes)
The Louis Tompkins Wright papers, 1909-1997 (inclusive), 1919-1953 (bulk), are the product of Wright’s administrative, professional, activist, writing, and publishing activities throughout his career. The papers are arranged in six series: I. Correspondence, 1909-1974; II. Chronological Files, 1910-1997; III. Manuscripts and Publications, 1928-1952; IV. Personal and Biographical Records, 1909-1980; V. Scrapbooks, 1919-1945; and VI. Photographs, 1918-1973.
Correspondence (Series I) consists of letters and related records generated and compiled by Wright during: his education (at Clark University and Harvard Medical School); internships (at Boston City Hospital and Freedman’s Hospital); his professional appointments at Harlem Hospital; his professional service; his social and political activism; and his writing and publishing activities. Series I also includes a small amount of correspondence of Louis T. Wright’s spouse, Corinne Cooke Wright.
Chronological Files (Series II) includes: correspondence; records of conferences, awards ceremonies, dinners, and other events; writings and publications (concerning racial discrimination in medicine and Black representation in medicine; healthcare access and quality for Black people; aureomycin testing, and other topics); newspaper clippings on Wright’s career; Harlem Hospital administrative records; and records of Wright’s professional service with the Uptown Medical Association, the Manhattan Medical Society; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Papers also include: manuscript drafts, publications, and publication correspondence (Series III); personal and biographical records, including newspaper clippings, biographical statements, recognitions, and funeral records (Series IV); scrapbooks of collected newspaper clippings and other papers related to Wright's life and career (Series V); and personal and professional photographs of Wright, his work, his family, and his funeral (Series VI).
Papers are entirely in English.
Louis Tompkins Wright (1891-1952), B.A., 1911, Clark University, Atlanta, Georgia, M.D., 1915, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, was a surgeon and medical desegregation advocate who served as Chief of Surgery at Harlem Hospital, New York, New York from 1943 until his death in 1952. He also chaired the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he worked on improving medical care for Black patients and on desegregating hospitals.
Louis Tompkins Wright was born on July 23, 1891, in LaGrange, Georgia, the son of Ceah Ketchan Wright and Lula Tompkins. Ceah was born with enslaved status; he later graduated as valedictorian of Meharry Medical School, Nashville, Tennessee and became a minister. Tompkins worked as a sewing teacher; after Ceah’s death, she married William Fletcher Penn (1871-1934), a physician who graduated from Yale Medical School, New Haven, Connecticut in 1897. Wright graduated as the 1912 valedictorian of Clark University (now called Clark Atlanta University), Atlanta, Georgia, a school founded to primarily serve African American students. According to Preston Reynolds’ description of Wright’s application to medical school, it was Wright’s stepfather’s urging that encouraged Wright to travel to Harvard Medical School to pursue admission. Harvard Medical School Dean Channing Frothingham (1881-1959) realized that Wright had attended a university for African American students and did not think that he could be qualified to attend Harvard. He sent Wright to Professor of Biological Chemistry Otto Folin (1867-1934), and Wright convinced Folin to test him. After conducting an oral examination, Folin reported that Wright should be admitted. While a student at Harvard Medical School, Wright experienced racism inside and outside of the classroom. He responded actively, for example, by successfully advocating for himself to be able to treat white women during clinical training at Boston Lying-In Hospital, Massachusetts, alongside his white peers and by protesting the white supremacist propaganda film Birth of a Nation, which was showing in Boston. After graduating fourth in his class in 1915, Wright was rejected from many internship programs which did not accept Black trainees, including Boston City Hospital and Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, both in Boston. With the help of advocacy from his stepfather, Wright was finally offered a yearlong intern position at the Freedman’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., one of the few hospitals that trained Black physicians. Wright developed skills in surgery and published his 1917 study about a test for diphtheria in Black patients, “The Schick Test: With Especial Reference to the Negro." He then joined his stepfather in practice in Georgia, before joining the Medical Reserve Corps. He also joined the Atlanta, Georgia chapter of the NAACP as Treasurer. In 1918, Wright served in France during World War I, where his lungs were damaged in a gas attack. He achieved the rank of Captain and was awarded a Purple Heart. In 1919, postwar, Wright joined the New York City Health Department, New York, working in the venereal disease clinic. From his position there, he was granted an entry-level position at Harlem Hospital, New York, New York. When Wright began work, four white physicians quit in protest (1). In 1919, Wright joined the Harlem Hospital staff, becoming the first Black medical staff member at a New York City municipal hospital, one of several positions in his career that he was the first Black person to hold. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Wright also maintained a private practice. In 1923, he started a nursing school at Harlem Hospital, providing opportunities for Black students. In 1928, he earned the position of Assistant Visiting Surgeon at Harlem Hospital after being rejected along with four other Black physicians on his first application, and in 1929, he was appointed Police Surgeon to the New York City Police Department, becoming the first Black person to hold that position in any major American city. Wright’s career was interrupted from 1939 to 1943, while he recovered from tuberculosis. In 1943, upon returning to health, he became Chief of Surgery at Harlem Hospital, a position he retained until his death in 1952.
As a researcher and clinician, Wright made various contributions in the field of surgery, including studying skull fractures and describing a rare femur fracture (oblique subcervical fracture of the femur) and creating devices to transport and operate on patients with specific fractures; developing expertise with his Harlem Hospital colleagues in treating the sexually transmitted infection lymphogranuloma inguinale with the antibiotic aureomycin; and studying chemotherapeutic cancer treatments (2). Wright also advocated for hospital desegregation, and for medical care and training for African Americans. In 1931, he joined the NAACP’s Board of Directors; from 1932 to 1937, he was President of the Crisis Publishing Company, which produces the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. He became NAACP Chairman in 1934, using his time in the position to address healthcare issues, including national health insurance. He formed the NAACP’s National Medical Committee (1940) and commissioned W. Montague Cobb (1904-1990), a physical anthropologist and later NAACP president, to study hospitals and medical care opportunities for Black Americans. In addition to his work for the NAACP, Wright was involved in professional organizations in which he advocated for medical desegregation.
Wright won many awards and honors for his work. He was the second Black person admitted to fellowship in the American College of Surgeons (1934), and he was granted an honorary fellowship in the International College of Surgeons (1950). He was a leader of the group that formed the Manhattan Central Medical Society in 1930, a group that successfully opposed a segregated hospital for Black patients planned for New York City by a philanthropist. He was also a founder of the Harlem Surgical Society in 1937. In 1938, LIFE magazine called him “the most eminent Negro doctor in the United States.” In 1940, the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in recognition of his work for Black doctors and patients. In 1948, he established both the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation and the Harlem Hospital Bulletin. Six months before his death in 1952, Harlem Hospital held a celebration to name the Louis T. Wright Library in his honor.
Wright married Corinne Cooke in 1918. The couple’s two daughters, Jane Cooke Wright and Barbara (Wright) Pierce, both became physicians. In Wright’s later years, he collected the scientific publications (possibly more than 3,000) of Black physicians as a hobby (3). He died on October 8, 1952, after a heart attack. He was posthumously awarded the American Cancer Society Medal in 1953.
- I. Correspondence, 1909-1974
- I.A. Alphabetical Correspondence and Related Records, 1917-1973
- I.B. Chronological Correspondence, 1909-1959
- I.C. Corinne Cooke Wright Correspondence and Related Records, 1963-1974
- II. Chronological Files, 1910-1997
- III. Manuscripts and Publications, 1928-1952
- IV. Personal and Biographical Records, 1909-1980
- IV.A. General Biographical Records, 1919-1965
- IV.B. Career and Family Records, 1919-1938
- IV.C. Citations, Awards, and Honors, 1936-1957
- IV.D. Funeral and Memorial Records, 1935-1980
- IV.E. Clippings, 1923-1967
- V. Scrapbooks, 1919-1945
- VI. Photographs, 1918-1973
- VI.A. Photo Envelope 1: Louis T. Wright Photographs, 1935-1973
- VI.B. Photo Envelope 2: Family Photographs of Louis T. Wright, 1952
- VI.C. Photo Envelope 3: Misc. Photographs, Louis T. Wright, 1918-1947
- VI.D. Photo Envelope 4: Louis T. Wright and Colleagues at the John A. Andrew Clinic, Tuskegee Institute, 1952
- VI.E. Photo Envelope 5: Funeral Services for Louis T. Wright, St. Philips Church, New York City, New York, 1952
- VI.F. Photo Envelope 6: Assorted Photographs, 1930-1970
Immediate Source of Acquisition
There is no record as to the date that the collection was transferred to the Center for the History of Medicine, though it occurred in 1972 or later. In a letter to Corinne Cooke Wright dated 1972 January 29, Richard Wolfe introduces the idea of placing the collection at the Countway Library. There were two subsequent accruals, transferred by Louis and Corinne's daughters, Drs. Barbara Wright Pierce and Jane Cooke Wright. These accruals are listed below.
- Accession number 99-020. Barbara Wright Pierce. 1999 March 06.
- Accession number 2001-005. Jane Cooke Wright. 2000 July 10.
The collection was re-processed by Amber LaFountain, 2023 January.
The collection was originally processed at an unknown date prior to 2007. In early 2007, Bryan Sutherland rehoused the scrapbooks and box-listed both the scrapbooks and the two accruals. In the fall of 2007, boxes 21-24 (photographs and other papers) were rehoused, and description was added to the finding aid.
Charlotte Lellman rewrote the Biographical Note, added subject headings, and revised the Overview in this finding aid in September 2020 to bring it into compliance with the Center for the History of Medicine’s Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description (2020). In particular, Lellman updated the racial terminology used in the description, and provided more detail about Wright's life, his career, and the discrimination he faced. She also modified archivist-supplied item titles describing Louis Tompkins Wright's wife, Corinne Cooke Wright, as "Mrs. Louis T. Wright," "Mrs. L.T.W.," or similar variations on her husband's name. In letters, Corinne Cooke Wright was often addressed by these names, or as "Corrine" (sic). Some sources refer to her as "Corinne (Cooke) Wright." To respect her separate identity from her husband, and to avoid confusion, she is now identified as "Corinne Cooke Wright" in this finding aid. The previous version of the finding aid is being maintained for transparency around the descriptive process.
The collection was re-processed in 2022-2023 by Amber LaFountain. The series arrangement was updated to restore the perceived original context of the papers, as well as to better reflect the functional types of records in the collection. It was determined that the folder titles were likely not original to the collection, so folder titles were edited for readability, and to better clarify folder contents. Series descriptions were also added to improve clarity and discoverability. Items were rehoused where necessary, and fragile rare newspaper clippings were photocopied to acid-free paper. The revised finding aid was uploaded in 2023 January.
Because significant changes were made to the collection description during re-processing, measures were taken to ensure that contents' ties to the previous description were not lost. The previous version of the finding aid is being maintained for transparency around the descriptive process. A spreadsheet detailing the previous names and numbering of box and folder list items is also saved to network storage. Original series numbers are listed in the description for each series.
- African American newspapers--New York (State)--New York.
- African American newspapers--United States.
- African American physicians--Massachusetts--Boston.
- African American physicians--New York (State)--New York.
- African American surgeons--Massachusetts--Boston.
- African American surgeons--New York (State)--New York.
- African Americans in medicine.
- African Americans--Segregation.
- Black people in medicine.
- Civil rights movements--United States.
- Discrimination in medical care--United States.
- Discrimination in medical education--United States.
- Health services accessibility.
- Hospital administrators--New York (State)--New York.
- Human rights movements--United States.
- Lymphogranuloma venereum.
- Newspaper clippings.
- Photographic prints.
- Political activists.
- Racism in medicine.
- Segregation--United States.
- Social movements--United States.
- Wright, Louis T. (Louis Tompkins), 1891-1952. Papers, 1909-1997 (inclusive), 1919-1953 (bulk): Finding Aid.
- Amber LaFountain
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- EAD ID
Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository
The Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine is one of the world's leading resources for the study of the history of health and medicine. Our mission is to enable the history of medicine and public health to inform healthcare, the health sciences, and the societies in which they are embedded.
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