The number of people who owe their lives to Dr. Charles R. Drew is beyond measure. The African American physician pioneered the preservation of blood and plasma at the start of World War II and is responsible for America’s first major blood banks.

Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950) was born in Washington, DC, the oldest of five children. Drew was an extraordinary athlete, earning several medals for swimming in his elementary years. Later he branched out – playing football, basketball, and other sports.

After graduating from Dunbar High School in 1922, Drew went to Amherst College on a sports scholarship. There, he distinguished himself on the track and football teams, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1926.

Drew wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a physician but didn’t have the money it took to go to school in the U.S. He took a job as a biology instructor and coach at Morgan College, now Morgan State University, in Baltimore, where he worked for two years.

Whole blood is often separated, using a centrifuge, into components for storage and transportation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration – Blood Research: Saving Lives

In 1928, he applied to medical schools and enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. At McGill, Drew specialized in surgery and developed his surgical career at Howard University when he joined the faculty in 1935. It was during his post-graduate internship and residency that he studied transfusion medicine.

From 1938-1940, while studying at Columbia University, he refined key methods of collecting, processing, and storing plasma. He was awarded the Med. D.Sc. from Columbia in 1940; his doctoral thesis was titled “Banked Blood.”

Banked Blood

In his research, Dr. Drew discovered that by separating the liquid part of the blood (called plasma) from the whole blood (where the red blood cells exist) and then refrigerating them separately, blood lasted longer and was less likely to become contaminated.

A blood donation

Flickr user warrenski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

He also discovered that everyone has the same type of plasma; thus, in those instances where a whole blood transfusion is unnecessary, a plasma transfusion could be administered, regardless of blood type. He helped establish a blood bank at Columbia University and became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Medical Science degree from that university.

In 1940, while WW II was going on, Dr. Drew was made the head medical supervisor of a project called “Blood for Britain.” Under his leadership, the project helped collect thousands of pints of blood and plasma from New York hospitals and shipped them overseas to treat soldiers in Europe.

It was Dr. Drew who introduced us to “bloodmobiles” — refrigerated trucks that served as blood transport and collection centers. He was so successful that in February 1941, he was made medical director of a pilot project to develop the first blood bank for military personnel under the American Red Cross.

Private Roy W. Humphrey of Toledo, Ohio is being given blood plasma after he was wounded by shrapnel in Sicily on 8-9-43.

Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

However, Dr. Drew became frustrated with the military’s insistence that Negro blood and plasma be separated from white people’s blood. The policy sparked protests from the Black press and the NAACP. In 1942, the American Red Cross announced it would start accepting blood from Negros, but would also segregate it.

Drew objected to the segregation of blood, stating that there was no scientific evidence of any difference between the blood of different races and that the policy was insulting to African Americans, who were eager to contribute to the war effort. Drew was outraged by this racist policy, and resigned his post after only a few months.

Drew eventually became Chief of Staff and Medical Director of Freedman’s Hospital and Head of Surgery at Howard University, where he was an influential teacher and a role model to students interested in medicine.

“Dr. Chas. Drew, Blood Bank Founder, Killed,” Detroit Tribune (Detroit, MI), April 8, 1950.

Library of Congress

On April 1, 1950, Drew was traveling to the Andrew Memorial Clinic in Tuskegee, Alabama to deliver a lecture. He was accompanied by three of his resident physicians from Howard University. Drew, the driver, fell asleep at the wheel. The car rolled over, throwing him out onto the pavement.

Drew was taken to Alamance General Hospital, a facilities-poor “White” hospital. There, doctors fought desperately to save his life, but his injuries were so severe and his loss of blood so great that he died.

Drew suffered a nearly severed leg, massive chest injuries, a broken neck, brain damage, and complete blockage of the blood flow to his heart. Only one other person was seriously injured, John Ford, but he eventually recovered.

American Red Cross Bloodmobile at University of California, San Diego.

Travis Rigel Lukas Hornung from Encinitas, C(CC BY 2.0)A

Dr. Charles R. Drew achieved a great many things throughout his short life, but his contribution to the field of medicine and the countless lives that were, and continue to be, saved through blood banking is his true enduring legacy.

Black History Month is celebrated in the United States and Canada during the Month of February, while in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, it is celebrated in October. Historian, Carter G. Woodson created the precursor to Black History Month in the U.S. in 1926, calling the second week in February “Negro History Week.”

We mention this because he chose the second week in February for a reason – The birthday of Abraham Lincoln is on the 12th, and the birthday of Frederick Douglass is on the 20th. Both of these dates had been celebrated togethe] by the Black community since the late 19th century.