Black History Month: Charles R. Drew, provider of life’s blood to all

On June 3, 1904, Charles Richard Drew was born in Washington, D.C.
He was surrounded by the poverty and hopelessness of the black community.  At the close of the civil war, blacks were promised freedom, but instead, they were imposed in Jim Crow laws. The Jim Crow laws enforced poor schools, outdated books, separate hospitals, and run-down churches. 

As a young boy, Charles knew there was nothing fair about Jim Crow, but insisted on dreaming the impossible. 

As a teenager, he was a track hurdler but wanted desperately to pursue a medical career. He began to think of how he would have to leap to become a doctor. He considered being an athlete a great challenge, but his true interest was medical school. After he graduated from Dunbar High School, he was accepted into Amherst College, located in Massachusetts. 

Upon graduation in 1926, Drew was awarded the Mossman Trophy, which goes to the student who brought the most honor to the school. Drew never accepted being second best — he won letters in five sports and was an excellent scholar.

Drew continued his education at McGill University in Montreal, Canada because of its awesome medical program and reputation of fairness to blacks. In medical school,  he became interested in blood and its secrets. He learned that all human blood is the same,  but there are different types of blood. 

After medical school, he interned at Montreal general hospital, where he performed many blood transfusions. He noticed how patients were dying and in pain from the tragic and crude techniques of moving blood from patient to patient. Drew felt it had to be a way to save lives with stored blood, and he spent most of his residency trying to unlock the secret.

 In 1936, black doctors doing pure research  was unheard of, so Drew returned to Washington to work at Howard University as a pathology teacher. While he was teaching at Howard, he taught and served his residents at Friedman Hospital. The world was going to war,  and Drew became frustrated because people would die from the need for blood. 

In 1938, he was awarded a two-year fellowship from Dr. John Scudder, at Columbia for research and surgery at Presbyterian Hospital. The fellowship allowed him to launch the greatest program of systematic research into blood and medical history. 

Drew became obsessed with solving the riddle of storing blood. After months of experimenting, he proposed an idea for an experimental bank for human patients. Drew was made the medical director of the entire project. The procedure required the patients to receive the blood loan and were responsible to repay the loan of two pints,  for every received. 

The problem  became how to stop the patient from being in pain during the transfusions.  Drew began to explore plasma, the fluid that suspends the blood cells. He discovered that plasma contains every substance of whole blood except for cells.

 Drew was able to prove that plasma could be stored without refrigeration, and could be transfused immediately without matching blood types. Also, he proved that red cells were not the concern in shock, burns, and hemorrhages, but were necessary for recovery.

In October of 1940, at age 36,  Drew was appointed overall director of the blood bank program. Sadly,  the master race theory of Germans helped enforce Jim Crow laws in the blood bank system. 

Drew held a press conference, saying, “The fact is that test by race does not stand up in the laboratory.” In 1941, the United States Army took control of the blood bank program and cut Drew from the program. 

So Drew returned to teaching at Howard, where he taught hundreds of black students to strive toward excellence and public service. 

On April 1, 1950, Drew’s car overturned in Burlington, North Carolina as he was traveling to a medical conference. He was rushed to a white and segregated hospital and died at 46 years old. 

A few months after his death, the Red Cross dropped the segregated blood program and  Drew’s contribution to the field of blood banks is still used today.


Charles R. Drew