Dr. Charles R. Drew: Blood Bank Pioneer

The number of people who owe their lives to Dr. Charles R. Drew is beyond measure.  The African American physician and surgeon pioneered the preservation of blood and plasma at the start of World War II and remained a leading authority on the subject for the rest of his career.  He is responsible for America’s first major blood banks and introduced the use of mobile blood donation and transport stations—later known as “bloodmobiles.”

“Dr Charles Drew,” The Northwest Enterprise (Seattle, WA), July 26, 1944.

“Dunbar High School,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), May 28, 1922.

Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950) was born in Washington, DC, the eldest of five children. Long before earning his medical degree, he gained fame for his extraordinary athletic ability.  From elementary through high school and into college, he played and excelled at multiple sports, including swimming, track, football, and basketball.  In 1922, the Evening Star newspaper called him “one of the greatest high school athletes in this country.” 

After high school, Drew attended Amherst College and received the Howard Hill Mossman Trophy as the man who contributed the most to Amherst athletics during his four years at the college.  While attending medical school at McGill University in Montreal, he won several Canadian championships in track and was elected track captain in 1931.

“Blood for Britain,” Morgan County Democrat (McConnelsville, OH), February 20, 1941.

At McGill, Drew specialized in surgery and developed his surgical career at Howard University when he joined the faculty in 1935.  During a post-graduate internship and residency, 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.”

“It doesn’t hurt a bit,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 5, 1941.

In 1940, World War II was already underway in Europe and Drew was put at the helm as 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.  At that time, Drew introduced the use of “bloodmobiles”—refrigerated trucks that served as blood transport and collection centers.

 

Following his success managing “Blood for Britain,” Drew was made medical director of a pilot project to develop the first blood bank for military personnel under the American Red Cross in February 1941.  Ironically, considering the essential role Drew, an African American, played in its success, the national pilot project excluded blood and plasma from black donors at the insistence of the military.  The policy sparked protest from the Black press and the NAACP. 

“Blood Donors Confer on Red Cross Rejection,” Detroit Tribune (Detroit, MI), December 20, 1941.

In January 1942, the American Red Cross announced that it would accept blood from black donors, but would 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.  His objection to the blood segregation policy is reportedly what led him to ultimately resign from the national pilot program. 

In 1944, during his acceptance speech receiving the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP for his work on the blood banking projects in Britain and in America, he noted, “It is fundamentally wrong for any great nation to willfully discriminate against such a large group of its people. . . . One can say quite truthfully that on the battlefields nobody is very interested in where the plasma comes from when they are hurt. . . “

In 1943, Drew became the first African American doctor to be chosen as an examiner for the American Board of Surgery.  Virginia State College awarded him the honorary degree of D.Sc. in 1945 and Amherst College the same degree in 1947.  From 1946-1948, he acted as Medical Director of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC.  During the summer of 1949, he served as a surgical consultant to the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army as a member of a team of physicians who toured hospital installations in Occupied Europe to improve the quality of medical care and instruction.

Tragically, Drew died on April 1, 1950 in an automobile accident in North Carolina in route to a medical meeting at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with three other doctors; he was forty-five years old. 

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

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.

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* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

2 Comments

  1. Merle Harris
    February 21, 2021 at 4:21 pm

    There is story that Drew was denied a blood transfusion and but for this would probably have lived. Is there any truth to this story

    • Heather Thomas
      February 22, 2021 at 4:11 pm

      Thank you Merle. I ran across this story when researching Dr. Charles Drew and was interested to learn more. I combed through some scholarly articles on the subject and there seems to be a consensus that although it is a widely believed story, it is not true.

      Drew had dozed off at the wheel on North Carolina Highway 49 in Alamance County. The car went off the road and he was badly injured. An ambulance took Drew to Alamance County General Hospital, where he received emergency care. However, his injuries proved fatal and he died about an hour later.

      In the years following Drew’s death, the story began to circulate that Drew bled to death after being refused treatment at a whites-only hospital. The myth was propagated through word of mouth and by newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and books that repeated the story. In 1964, the executive director of the National Urban League, Whitney M. Young, Jr., wrote a column on the subject “Bigotry and the Blood Bank,” in the October 17, 1964 New York Amsterdam News, p. 20. An episode of the television show M* A*S*H was devoted to it in the 1970s.

      However, over the years, evidence has been cited that seemingly disproves the story. In 1950, Alamance County General Hospital, though it segregated white and black patients, was not a “whites-only” institution and did not refuse Drew treatment. Eyewitness testimony from Drew’s companions in the car at the time of the accident, as well as hospital staff, confirmed that plasma was administered to Drew in addition to other emergency treatment. Further, Drew’s death certificate listed the conditions leading to his death as “brain injury, internal hemorrhage—lungs and multiple extremities injuries,” which indicates that he did not die from blood loss alone. In 1984, the Journal of the National Association of Medicine (Apr. 76(4): 415–416) definitively refuted the myth by providing the eyewitness account of Dr. Walter R. Johnson, one of the doctors in the car with Drew, who describes the accident and Drew’s subsequent treatment.

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