Dr. Charles Drew was the "Father of the Blood Bank." Pioneering the Storage and Transfusion of Blood Plasma

Matt Reicher

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Photo of Dr. Charles DrewBloodworks Northwest

“I am blood and blood is me.” ~ Dr. Charles R. Drew

African American surgeon Charles Drew pioneered the storing of blood plasma for transfusions and organized the first U.S. blood bank. During World War II, he directed the United States and Great Britain's blood plasma programs. He left his position after Armed Forces officials decided to segregate the blood of African-Americans.

On June 3, 1904, Dr. Charles Richard Drew was born in Washington D.C. to Richard and Nora Burrell Drew. He was the oldest of five children. The family lived in a middle-class, inter-racial neighborhood called Foggy Bottoms. Their upbringing emphasized education and religion as well as personal responsibilities and independence.

Drew graduated from Dunbar High School, considered one of the best college preparatory schools in the nation, in 1922. He did well in a variety of athletic pursuits, but his academic record was not impressive. Drew was an entrepreneur and athlete who lettered in four sports. He received an athletic scholarship to Amherst College after graduating high school. His achievements on the football field and track field made him a legend. The death of Elsie, his oldest sister (from tuberculosis complicated by influenza), in 1920 and hospitalization for an injury sustained in college contributed to his interest in medicine.

After graduation, he considered medical school but couldn't afford tuition. The Baltimore-based Morgan College hired Drew to earn money for school as an athletic director and biology and chemistry professor. While coaching at the school for two years, he turned the average sports teams into competitive collegiate entities. Drew applied to the McGill Faculty of Medicine in Montreal, Canada, known for its favorable treatment of minority students.

Drew became a star athlete at McGill University, where graduate and professional students could participate in school sports. His stardom wasn't confined to the field; like his previous academic experiences, he also became a star student, winning several prestigious awards and fellowships and graduating second among his classmates in 1933.

In 1933-1935, he worked closely with bacteriology professor John Beattie, studying ways to treat shock through transfusions and other fluid replacement. Drew developed a keen interest in transfusion medicine from this work, which he would later pursue with his blood bank research.

Drew joined the faculty at Howard University College of Medicine in 1935 as a pathology instructor. He progressed to a surgical instructor and later chief surgical resident at Freedmen's Hospital.

He trained with the Department of Surgery chair for three years. He received a fellowship to train at New York's Presbyterian Hospital while earning a doctorate in medical science from Columbia University. At Presbyterian, he studied shock, fluid balance, blood chemistry and preservation, and transfusion. His main project was to set up an experimental blood bank at Presbyterian. It opened in August 1939. Drew became the first African American to earn a doctorate in medical science from Columbia University in June 1940.

A process developed by Drew in the late 1930s gave blood plasma the ability to be stored, shipped, and used more effectively for transfusions. At the time, whole blood had a shelf-life of about a week. Drew's plasma lasted for up to two months. On the eve of WWII exploding across Europe. Drew proved that plasma could be stored without refrigeration. It could be transfused immediately. This change meant that blood for transfusions would be on hand immediately instead of waiting for it. Drew's time-saving breakthrough would save lives.

During World War II, Drew's invention became more critical when he oversaw blood banks for British soldiers as part of "Blood for Britain." In 1941, he became medical director of the American Red Cross National Blood Donor Service. He collected thousands of blood donations for American troops, making it the first mass blood collection program. The lives of 14000 soldiers over WWII were saved due to his work.

His blood program helped the Allied Forces win the war.

Drew left his posts in 1941 after the armed forces ruled that the blood of African-Americans could be used but had to be stored separately from the blood of whites. Science didn't support their assessment that the blood of white soldiers was different from the blood of black soldiers. He thought what they were doing was not only scientifically wrong but insulting to African-Americans. He wasn't willing to be a part of it.

" The blood of individual human beings may differ from blood groupings, but there is absolutely no scientific basis to indicate any difference in human blood from race to race." ~ Dr. Charles Drew

His next position was Chief of Staff and Medical Director at Freedman's Hospital, where he became an influential teacher and role model for students interested in medicine.

Tragically, Charles Drew died in North Carolina on April 1, 1950, after falling asleep behind the wheel while driving to a conference. He received a blood transfusion at an all-white hospital but succumbed to his injuries. Dr. Drew died at the peak of his career as chief of surgery at Howard University's Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. He left behind a wife and four kids.

A false rumor spread that his death was due to a hospital's refusal to give a black man the blood of a white man. Unfortunately, his injuries were so significant that blood loss alone did not cause Drew's death. His death certificate specifies that the factors leading to his death were "brain injury, internal hemorrhage involving the lungs and multiple injuries to the extremities."

Today, the blood bank program remains similar to the one Dr. Charles Drew created on the eve of World War II. His pioneering work has allowed blood to be stored for extended periods and to be used in transfusions. Plainly put, Dr. Drew's groundbreaking work saved lives, a feat it continues to do more than seventy years after his death.

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Drew with his lab aparatusACS

Sources

  • "Charles Drew." Biography. Last modified April 28, 2017. https://www.biography.com/scientist/charles-drew.
  • "Charles R. Drew." Profiles in Science. https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/spotlight/bg.
  • Davis, Janel. "Charles Drew: Doctor Was a Pioneer in Storing Blood." Ajc. Last modified February 15, 2019. https://www.ajc.com/lifestyles/health/charles-drew-doctor-was-pioneer-storing-blood/ZB8oouYKgzKAjySeFWDcKI/.
  • "The Death of Dr. Charles Drew." NC Museum of History. https://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/death-dr-charles-drew.
  • Pilgrim, David. "The Truth About the Death of Charles Drew - 2004 - Question of the Month - Jim Crow Museum - Ferris State University." Ferris State University: Michigan College Campuses in Big Rapids MI, Grand Rapids MI, Off Campus Locations Across Michigan. Last modified June 2004. https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2004/june.htm.
  • https://thebumblingbiochemist.com/365-days-of-science/charles-drew-the-father-of-the-blood-blank-for-him-we-have-a-lot-to-thank/.

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Freelance historian writing about Minnesota history.

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