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Dr. Charles Drew: Creator of the Life Saving Blood Bank

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

When Charles Drew was born in Washington, D.C. in 1904, school attendance wasn’t required. It wouldn’t become compulsory for another twenty years. Even then, only 1% of Southern Black students had access to a high school education and shamefully, their schools were segregated and poorly funded. Although Black students were technically allowed to attend White universities in Northern states even before the abolition of slavery, they still faced racism and discrimination from faculty, staff, and administrators. High tuitions and inadequate preparation created additional barriers. Even for Whites, college was only for the rich. In the 1920s, there were 250,000 college students, roughly 5% of the population. The number of Black college students – in the hundreds – paled in comparison.

Against this backdrop, it’s remarkable that Charles Drew was able to use his exceptional intelligence and talents in track and football to not only complete high school, but to win a sports scholarship to Amherst College. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Amherst in 1926 but lacked money to further his education. So he scrupulously saved all he could as he worked as a biology instructor for Morgan College in Baltimore. Two years later, he was able to attend medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Drew excelled at McGill, winning a prize in neuroanatomy and gaining membership to the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society. He graduated second in his class in 1933, with both Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees. While completing his internship and residency, Drew studied with Dr. John Beattie, who was researching the correlations between transfusions of blood and shock therapy. Shock occurs as the amount of blood in the body rapidly declines, either from a wound or dehydration. Blood pressure and body temperature decrease, causing a lack of blood flow and a loss of oxygen in the body's tissues and cells. Their research showed that blood transfusions were the solution to treating shock. But since there was no way to store or transport blood, transfusions were extremely limited by location. If you weren’t near a hospital with immediate access to blood donors, death was a likely outcome.

In 1938, Drew received a Rockefeller Fellowship to study at Columbia University and train at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. There, he developed a method to process and preserve blood plasma, which lasts much longer than whole blood. He discovered that plasma could be dried, “banked” and then reconstituted when needed. This research served as the basis of his doctorate thesis, "Banked Blood," which earned him his doctorate degree in 1940. He became the first Black man to earn a Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia.

Charles Drew's system for the storing of blood plasma (the blood bank) revolutionized the medical profession. To increase the supply of blood available for transfusions, he conceived the first blood mobiles and blood drives. As WWII raged across Europe, Drew worked with the American Red Cross to create systems for storing and transfusing blood for both British and American soldiers. But he soon grew frustrated with the military's request to segregate the blood donated by African Americans. Initially, the military refused all blood from African Americans, but later conceded that it could be used for Black soldiers. Drew resigned in outrage after only a few months. Despite any science to substantiate its racist policy, the American Red Cross continued to segregate blood until 1950.

Upon his resignation, Drew served as the chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital and as a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Tragically, on April 1, 1950, Drew and three other physicians were in an accident while driving to a medical conference at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Drew was behind the wheel and was over-tired from operating the night before. Distracted or nodding off, he lost control of his car. His three companions suffered minor injuries, but Drew’s foot was trapped beneath the brake pedal. When rescuers reached him, his severe wounds and bleeding had sent him into shock. He died shortly after reaching the hospital, leaving behind his wife, Minnie, and their four children.

Some rumors held that the transfusions Drew had spent his career developing might have saved him, or that perhaps he’d been refused treatment because of his skin color. The doctors who were in the car with him refuted this, saying that his injuries were not survivable and a transfusion would not have prolonged his life. However, it is true that in 1950, it was not uncommon for Blacks to be refused treatment because there weren’t enough "Negro beds" available or to be told that the nearest hospital only treated Whites.

Drew was only forty-five at the time of his death, yet he took full advantage of every opportunity and used his brilliance to save innumerable lives. His legacy serves as a reminder that educational doors must be opened to everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity or disability. Our lives could depend on it.

To learn more about Dr. Drew, we recommend Biography’s Charles R. Drew and Wikipedia’s profile

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