Elva Anis Wright was a Houston and Harris County medical pioneer and a leader in the fight against tuberculosis (TB). She was born on March 20, 1868, in Hillsdale, Pennsylvania, and was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson Wright and Nancy Jane Dunlap. She never married. She was a pioneer resident of the community of West University Place in Houston.
During the period of 1899 to 1905 women comprised less than 5 percent of medical school enrollments. Wright obtained her bachelor of science degree at Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute (present-day Valparaiso University) in 1894 before receiving her medical degree from Chicago’s Northwestern University Women’s Medical College in 1900. She then pursued her post-graduate work at the University of Edinburgh—Edinburgh Medical School was considered “one of the most prestigious in the world.” Wright also attended clinics at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. While in London, “she observed the great number of tuberculosis children” and “developed her interest in tuberculosis control.” At the turn of the twentieth century, TB, earlier known as “consumption,” was the most lethal disease in the United States and one of the most feared in the world.
Upon returning to the United States, Wright completed an internship at Mary Thompson Hospital (formerly known as Chicago Hospital for Women and Children), founded in 1865 by Mary Harris Thompson, “one of the best-known women surgeons in the nation.” Following her internship Wright began practicing medicine in Lake Forest, Illinois. She specialized in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology but increasingly turned her attention to the study and prevention of tuberculosis. In late 1902 she became the first president of the Lake Forest Women’s Club, and in late 1908 she helped organize the Lake County Tuberculosis Institute.
At age forty-two, she moved to Houston and arrived on July 4, 1910. At the time of her arrival in Houston, women comprised about 5 percent of the city’s physicians and surgeons. The following year, on November 11, 1911, she founded the Houston Anti-Tuberculosis League and became the organization’s first president, a position she held until her death in 1950. The organization later became the San Jacinto Lung Association. The Texas Anti-Tuberculosis Association was established in Austin in 1908, just three years prior to Wright’s launching of the Houston organization. The August 23, 1912, edition of the Houston Post reported that Dr. Wright and others had successfully petitioned County Judge A. E. Amerman and County Commissioner J. B. Marmion for the establishment of a county and city-supported tuberculosis sanitarium. The Houston Anti-Tuberculosis Association opened a free clinic and office at 806 Bagby Street in 1913 and remained at that location until 1957.
Wright is quoted as offering this thought on her legacy: “I’d rather be remembered for the disease I prevented than for the disease I cured.” Her organization’s primary funding source was through its annual sale of Christmas Seals, a concept first used in the United States by the National Anti-Tuberculosis Association in 1907. This fundraising campaign was successfully used in Houston, and donations increased from $263 in 1911 to more than $150,000 in 1956. These funds paid for skin tests and clinics for the treatment of TB. In 1945 the association purchased the city’s first mobile x-ray unit.
In addition to her lifelong commitment to fighting tuberculosis, Wright also served on the obstetrical staff of Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston. Her many lifetime accomplishments included: founder and charter member of the Altrusa Club, a civic organization for business and professional women; president emeritus and board member of the Texas Tuberculosis Association; president of the Southern Tuberculosis Conference; chairman of the State Nursing Committee of the Texas Farm Women organization, which lobbied for a statewide rural nursing program; and a founder and first president of the Houston Business Women’s Club. During her tenure as president of the Texas Tuberculosis Association, Wright also instituted a five-year statewide skin test program.
Dr. Elva A. Wright died at the age of eighty-two on July 18, 1950, and was cremated in Houston. Memorial tributes heralded her career and lifetime commitment to public health—and specifically to the welfare of the women and children of Houston, Harris County, and Texas—and called her a “great humanitarian…a good citizen, deeply-loved by her friends and neighbors—ever conscious of her civic responsibilities.”