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COLLECTION Identifier: H MS c56

Louis Tompkins Wright papers

Overview

The Louis Tompkins Wright papers, 1879, 1898, 1909-1997, consist of records pertaining to Wright's student years at Clark University, Atlanta, Georgia and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts; internship and later career at the Harlem Hospital, New York, New York; political involvement in the NAACP and other groups, and desegregation advocacy; activities in various professional societies; and his medical practice in New York, New York. The bulk of the collection consists of clippings, mostly from Black New York newspapers, about Black people in the medical field, Black professionals, and health care for Black patients. Also includes personal and professional correspondence, including a limited amount of correspondence of Wright's wife, Corinne Cooke Wright; reprints of writings; and pamphlets, some containing brief histories of Black medical societies, concerning political issues. The collection also contains several photographs of Wright, his family, and his attendance at professional events and civic activities.

Dates

  • 1879, 1898, 1909-1997

Creator

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice. Consult Public Services for further information.

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.

Extent

26 boxes
The Louis Tompkins Wright papers pertain to: Wright’s experiences as a student at Clark University, Atlanta, Georgia, and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts; his internship and career at Harlem Hospital, New York, New York; his involvement in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups working against segregation; professional society activities; and his medical practice in New York City, New York. The collection consists primarily of clippings, especially from Black newspapers in New York, pertaining to Black people as professionals, Black physicians, and health care for Black patients. Also included are: Wright’s personal and professional correspondence, as well as a small amount of Corinne Cooke Wright’s correspondence; reprints and writings; and pamphlets, some containing brief histories of Black medical societies, or concerning political issues. The collection also contains several photographs of Wright and his family, including his attendance at professional events and civic activities.

Biography

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.

1. Reynolds, Preston P. “Dr Louis T. Wright and the NAACP: Pioneers in Hospital Racial Integration.” American Journal of Public Health 90, no. 6 (June 2000): 883–92.

2. Reynolds, “Dr. Louis T. Wright and the NAACP.”

3. Reynolds, “Dr. Louis T. Wright and the NAACP.”

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. I. Alphabetical Correspondence and Related Records, 1917-1969
  2. II. Chronological Files, 1909-1955
  3. III. Manuscripts and Publications, 1928-1952, undated
  4. IV. Personal and Biographical Records, 1909-1955
  5. V. Scrapbooks, 1919-1940
  6. VI. Chronological Correspondence and Related Records, 1910-1997, undated
  7. ___A. Chronological Correspondence, 1910-1997, undated
  8. ______ 1. 1910-1918
  9. ______ 2. 1925-1930s, undated
  10. ______ 3. 1931-1943, undated
  11. ______ 4. 1945-1950
  12. ______ 5. 1951-1960
  13. ______ 6. 1961-1970
  14. ______ 7. 1971-1980
  15. ______ 8. 1981-1997
  16. ___ B. Telegrams, 1952
  17. ___ C. Scrapbook, 1945
  18. VII. Clippings, Citations, and Related Records, 1879, 1898, 1918-1974, undated
  19. ___A. Citations and Photographs, 1879, 1898, 1918-1919, 1935-1973, undated
  20. ______ 1. Citations, 1938, 1953, 1957
  21. ______2. Photographs, 1879, 1898, 1918-1919, 1935-1973
  22. _________ a. Photo envelope 1: Louis T. Wrightphotographs, 1935-1973, undated
  23. _________ b. Photo envelope 2: Family photographs of Louis T, Wright, 1879, 1898, undated
  24. _________ c. Photo envelope 3: Misc. photographs, Louis T. Wright,1919-1919, 1939, 1947, undated
  25. _________ d. Photo envelope 4: Louis T. Wrightand colleagues at the John A. Andrew Clinic,1952
  26. _________ e. Photo envelope 5: Funeral services for Louis T. Wright,St. Philips Church, New York City, New York,October 11, 1952
  27. _________ f. Rolled photograph: Reveille Club of New York.37th anniversary dinner, 1969
  28. ___ B. Set I: Correspondence and Related Records, 1918, 1930, undated
  29. ___C. Set II: Clippings, Correspondence, and Related Records, 1923-1974
  30. ______ 1. Clippings, 1923-1967
  31. ______2. Correspondence, 1939-1974
  32. _________ a. Louis T. Wright Correspondence and Related Records, 1939-1959
  33. _________ b. Corinne Cooke Wright Correspondence and Related Records, 1963-1974
  34. VIII. Oversized Photograph, undated

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accruals to the collection were donated by Barbara (Wright) Pierce and Jane Cooke Wright.

Related Materials

Wright's collection of publications by Black physicians and scientists is at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University Libraries:

Staff, MSRC, "WRIGHT, Louis" (2015). Manuscript Division Finding Aids. 218. https://dh.howard.edu/finaid_manu/218

Processing Information

Processing Information 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 discimination 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.
Link to catalog
Title
Wright, Louis T. (Louis Tompkins), 1891-1952. Papers, 1879, 1898, 1909-1997: Finding Aid
Author
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Center for the History of Medicine.
EAD ID
med00077

Repository Details

Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository

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