1904 – 1950
Surgeon and blood researcher Charles Richard Drew was a renowned surgeon, teacher, and researcher. He was responsible for founding two of the world’s largest blood banks. Because of his research into the storage and shipment of blood plasma-blood without cells – he is credited with saving the lives of thousands of Britons during World War II.
He was director of the first American Red Cross effort to collect and bank blood on a large scale. In 1942, a year after he was made a diplomat of surgery by the American Board of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University, he became the first African American surgeon to serve as an examiner on the board.
Early Life – excelling in academia and sports
Charles Richard Drew was the eldest of five children. He was born on June 3, 1904, in Washington, D.C., to Richard T. Drew, a carpet layer, and Nora (Burrell) Drew, a school teacher and graduate of Miner Teachers College.
As a student, Drew excelled in academics and sports, winning four swimming medals by the age of eight. In 1922 he graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, where he received the James E. Walker Memorial Medal in his junior and senior years for his athletic performance in several sports, including football, basketball, baseball, and track.
Drew attended Amherst College in Western Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship. He would be one of 16 Black students to graduate from Amherst during the years 1920 to 1929. He served as captain of the track team. He was enormously popular and was awarded several honors, including the Thomas W. Ashley Memorial Trophy for being the football team’s most valuable player.
Although Drew was a gifted athlete, he worked hard in school to keep high grades. By the time he graduated in 1926, he had decided to apply to medical school. However, his funds were severely limited. Before he could go to medical school, he had to work for a couple of years. He accepted a job at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland, as a professor of chemistry and biology, as well as director of the college’s sports program. During the next two years, he paid off his undergraduate loans and put some money aside for medical school.
In 1928 he was finally able to apply to medical school. However, African Americans who wished to become doctors at that time did not have many opportunities. There were two colleges open to them. Drew applied to Howard University and was rejected because he did not have enough credits in English. Harvard University accepted him for the following year, but he did not want to wait so he applied to and was immediately accepted to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and embarked on Research in Blood. At McGill, Drew continued to excel in sports and academics.
In 1930 he won the annual prize in neuroanatomy and was elected to Alpha Phi Omega, the school’s honorary medical society. During this time, under the influence of Dr. John Beattie, a visiting professor from England, Drew began his research in blood transfusions.
The four different types of blood-A, B, AB, and O-had recently been discovered. Subsequently, doctors knew what type of blood they were giving to patients and were avoiding the negative effects of mixing incompatible blood types. However, because whole blood was highly perishable, the problem of having the appropriate blood type readily available still existed.
In 1930 when Drew and Beattie began their research, blood could only be stored for seven days before it began to spoil. In 1933 Drew graduated from McGill with his Medical Degree and Master of Surgery degree. He interned at the Royal Victoria Hospital and finished his residency at Montreal General. During this time, he continued researching with Beattie.
Because of his father’s death in 1934, Drew decided to return to Washington, D.C., to take care of his family. In 1935 he accepted a position to teach pathology at Howard University Medical School. The next year he obtained a one-year residency at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Develops Process to Preserve Plasma
In 1938, having accepted a two-year Rockefeller Fellowship, Drew continued his work in blood at Columbia University-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Under the auspices of the Department of Surgery, he worked with Dr. John Scudder and Dr. E. H. L. Corwin on the problem of blood storage. Drew began to study the use of plasma as a substitute for whole blood. Because red blood cells contain the substance that determines blood type, their absence in plasma means that a match between donor and recipient is not necessary; this makes it ideal for emergencies.
In 1939, while supervising a blood bank at Columbia Medical Center, Drew developed a method to process and preserve blood plasma so that it could be stored and shipped to great distances. (Dehydrated plasma could be reconstituted by adding water just before the transfusion.) Drew graduated from Columbia University in 1940, with a Doctor of Science degree; he was the first African American to receive this degree. In his dissertation, “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation,” Drew showed that liquid plasma lasted longer than whole blood.
He was asked to be the medical supervisor on the “Blood for Britain” campaign, launched by the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association. At the height of World War II, Nazi warplanes were bombing British cities regularly and there was a desperate shortage of blood to treat the wounded. In order to meet the huge demand for plasma, Drew initiated the use of “bloodmobiles” – trucks equipped with refrigerators. The Red Cross has continued to use them during blood drives.
Incidently, the inventor of refrigerated lorries was invented by Frederick McKinley Jones, an African American in the 1930’s:
Jones continued to expand his interests in the 1930s. He designed and patented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food. Forming a partnership with Numero, Jones founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company. The company grew exponentially during World War II, helping to preserve blood, medicine and food. By 1949, U.S. Thermo Control was worth millions of dollars.
Director of American Red Cross Blood Bank
In 1941 after the success of “Blood for Britain,” Drew became director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank in New York. He was asked to organize a massive blood drive for the U.S. Army and Navy, consisting of 100,000 donors.
However, when the military issued a directive to the Red Cross that blood be typed according to the race of the donor, and that African American donors be refused, Drew was incensed. He denounced the policy as unscientific, stating that there was no evidence to support the claim that blood type differed according to race. His statements were later confirmed by other scientists, and the government eventually allowed African American volunteers to donate blood, although it was still segregated.
Drew was asked to resign from the project and ironically, in 1977 the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., was renamed the Charles R. Drew Blood Center.
He returned to Washington, D.C., and resumed teaching. In 1941 he was made Professor of Surgery at Howard University, where he had been rejected 13 years earlier, and chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital.
In 1943 he became the first African American surgeon to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. He was an inspiration and role model to his students and received numerous honorary degrees and awards during this period of his life, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Spingarn Medal in 1944. He wrote numerous articles on blood for various scientific journals, and in 1946 was elected Fellow to the International College of Surgeons. In 1939 Drew married (Minnie) Lenore Robbins, and they had four children. Drew continued teaching in Washington, D.C.; during the summer of 1949, as a consultant to the Surgeon General, he travelled with a team of four physicians, assessing hospital facilities throughout Occupied Europe.
On March 31, 1950, after performing several operations, Drew allowed his colleagues and some of his students to talk him into attending a medical meeting being held at Tuskegee Institute as part of its Founder’s Day celebrations. When Drew dozed off while driving near Burlington, North Carolina, his car overturned, and he was killed.
Despite his untimely death at the age of 45, Dr. Drew left behind a legacy of life-saving techniques. Additionally, many of his students rose to prominence in the medical field. In 1976 his portrait was unveiled at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health, making him the first African American to join its gallery of scientists. Four years later, his life was honored with a postage stamp, issued as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s “Great Americans” series.
Read more about Dr Charles Drew in the Science History Institute