Washington, DC

Blood Bank Pioneer Dr. Charles Drew (1904 - 1950)

Matt Reicher

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Dr. Charles R. Drew Portrait (painted by Betsy Graves Reyneau)Wikimedia Commons

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

Dr. Charles Drew, an African-American surgeon, organized the first blood bank in the United States and pioneered the method of storing blood plasma. He directed the United States and Great Britain's blood plasma programs during World War II. After armed forces officials decided to segregate the blood of African-American soldiers, he left his position.

On June 3, 1904, 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 Bottom. Their upbringing emphasized education and religion as well as personal responsibility and independence.

Drew graduated from Dunbar High School, considered one of the finest colleges preparatory schools in the country, in 1922. Though he excelled in a variety of athletic pursuits, his academic record was not impressive. A four-sport letter recipient, Drew was a successful entrepreneur and athlete.

After graduating from high school, he received an athletic scholarship to Amherst College. His accomplishments 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.

He considered medical school after leaving high 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 their mediocre sports teams into competitive collegiate entities. 

Drew chose McGill Faculty of Medicine in Montreal, Canada, for medical school. He became a star athlete at the school, where graduate and professional students could take part in sports. In contrast to his previous academic endeavors, Drew's stardom wasn't restricted to the field. He was also 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. Dr. 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.

While progressing toward a doctorate from Columbia University, he received a fellowship to train at New York's Presbyterian Hospital. He studied shock, fluid balance, blood chemistry and preservation, and transfusion at Presbyterian. His main project was to set up an experimental blood bank. It opened in August 1939. 

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. he proved plasma could be stored without refrigeration. It could be transfused immediately. Drew’s time-saving breakthrough would save lives.

In June 1940, Dr. Drew became the first African American to receive a doctorate in medical science from Columbia University.

During World War II, Dr. 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 WWII soldiers were saved because of his work.

His blood program helped the Allied Forces win the war.

Dr. 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 Caucasians. Science didn’t support their assessment that the blood of white soldiers differed 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, Dr. 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 because of the 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 Dr. Drew’s death. His death certificate specified 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 over seventy years after his death.

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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