The Black History Month Series 2015: Doctor Charles Richard Drew (June 3, 1904 – April 1, 1950).
Dr. Charles Drew Blood Bank Inventor
It’s impossible to determine how many hundreds of thousands of people would have lost their lives without the contributions of African-American inventor Dr. Charles Drew. This physician, researcher and surgeon revolutionized the understanding of blood plasma – leading to the invention of blood banks.
Born in 1904 in Washington, D.C., Charles Drew excelled from early on in both intellectual and athletic pursuits. After becoming a doctor and working as a college instructor, Drew went to Columbia University to do his Ph.D. on blood storage. He completed a thesis titled Banked Blood that invented a method of separating and storing plasma, allowing it to be dehydrated for later use. It was the first time Columbia awarded a doctorate to an African-American.
At the onset of World War II, Drew was called upon to put his techniques into practice. He emerged as the leading authority on mass transfusion and processing methods, and went on to helm the American Red Cross blood bank. When the Armed Forces ordered that only Caucasian blood be given to soldiers, Drew protested and resigned.
For more information on Dr. Charles Richard Drew, refer to:
American Red Cross Museum – Dr. Charles Drew
Who Made America? Innovators: Charles Richard Drew
Engines of Our Ingenuity: Charles Richard Drew
Charles Richard Drew (June 3, 1904 – April 1, 1950) was an American physician, surgeon, and medical researcher. He researched in the field of blood transfusions, developing improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge to developing large-scale blood banks early in World War II. This allowed medics to save thousands of lives of the Allied forces. The research and development aspect of his blood storage work is disputed. As the most prominent African-American in the field, Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation, an action which cost him his job.
Drew was born in 1904 into an African-American middle-class family in Washington, D.C. His father, Richard, was a carpet layer and his mother, Nora Burrell, was a teacher. Drew and his siblings grew up in DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood and he graduated from Dunbar High School in 1922. Drew won an athletics scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1926. An outstanding athlete at Amherst, Drew also joined Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He attended medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, receiving his M.D. in 1933 as well as a Master of Surgery degree, and ranked 2nd in his class of 127 students. A few years later, Drew did graduate work at Columbia University, where he earned his Doctor of Medical Science degree, becoming the first African American to do so.
In 1941, Drew’s distinction in his profession was recognized when he became the first African American surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. Drew had a lengthy research and teaching career and became a chief surgeon.
Blood Plasma for Great Britain Project
In late 1940, before the US entered World War II and just after earning his doctorate, Drew was recruited by John Scudder to help set up and administer an early prototype program for blood storage and preservation. He was to collect, test, and transport large quantities of blood plasma for distribution in Great Britain. Drew went to New York to direct the United States’ Blood for Britain project. The Blood for Britain project was a project to aid British soldiers and civilians by giving US blood to Great Britain.
Drew created a central location for the blood collection process where donors could go to give blood. He made sure all blood plasma was tested before it was shipped out. He ensured that only skilled personnel handled blood plasma to avoid the possibility of contamination. The Blood for Britain program operated successfully for five months, with total collections of almost 15,000 people donating blood, and with over 5,500 vials of blood plasma. As a result, the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association applauded Drew for his work. Out of his work came the American Red Cross Blood Bank.
In 1939, Drew married Minnie Lenore Robbins, a professor of home economics at Spelman College whom he had met earlier that year. They had three daughters and a son. His daughter Charlene Drew Jarvis was the president of Southeastern University from 1996 until 2009.
Beginning in 1939, Drew traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama to attend the annual free clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital. For the 1950 Tuskegee clinic, Drew drove along with three other black physicians. Drew was driving around 8 a.m. on April 1. Still fatigued from spending the night before in the operating theater, Drew lost control of the vehicle. After careening into a field, the car somersaulted three times. The three other physicians suffered minor injuries. Drew was trapped with serious wounds; his foot had become wedged beneath the brake pedal. When reached by emergency technicians, Drew was in shock and barely alive due to severe leg injuries. Drew was taken to Alamance General Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina. He was pronounced dead a half hour after he first received medical attention. Drew’s funeral was held on April 5, 1950, at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
Despite a popular myth to the contrary, once repeated on an episode of the hit TV series M*A*S*H, Drew’s death was not the result of his having been refused a blood transfusion because of his skin color. This myth spread very quickly since during Drew’s time it was very common for blacks to be refused treatment because there weren’t enough “Negro beds” available or the nearest hospital only serviced whites. In truth, according to one of the passengers in Drew’s car, John Ford, Drew’s injuries were so severe that virtually nothing could have been done to save him. Ford added that a blood transfusion might have actually killed Drew sooner.
- In 1981, the United States Postal Service issued a 35¢ postage stamp in its Great Americans series to honor Drew.
- Charles R. Drew Memorial Bridge, Brookland neighborhood, Washington DC
- USNS Charles Drew, a dry cargo ship of the United States Navy
- Parc Charles-Drew, in Le Sud-Ouest, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Drew as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans.
Numerous schools and health-related facilities, as well as other institutions, have been named in honor of Dr. Drew.
Medical and higher education
- In 1966, the Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School was incorporated in California and was named in his honor. This later became the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
- Charles Drew Health Center, Omaha, Nebraska
- Charles Drew Science Enrichment Laboratory, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
- Charles Drew Health Foundation, East Palo Alto, California, 1960s-2000, was the community’s only clinic for decades.
- Charles Drew Community Health Center, located in Burlington, NC near the site of the old Alamance County hospital.
- Charles R Drew Wellness Center in Columbia, South Carolina
- Charles R. Drew Hall, an all-male freshman dorm at Howard University, Washington D.C.
- Charles Drew Memorial Cultural House, residence at Amherst College, his alma mater
- Charles R. Drew Middle School & Magnet school for the gifted, opened 1966 Los Angeles Unified School District https://drew-lausd-ca.schoolloop.com/
- Charles R. Drew Middle School Lincoln Alabama operated by Talladega County Schools
- Charles R. Drew Junior High School, Detroit, Michigan
- Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School, Buffalo, NY
- Charles R. Drew Elementary School, Miami Beach and Pompano Beach, Florida
- Bluford Drew Jemison S.T.E.M Academy, Baltimore, and Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School, Colesville, Maryland
- Charles R. Drew Elementary School, Arlington, Virginia
- Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School, New Orleans, LA
- Charles R. Drew Charter School opened in August 2000 as the first charter school in Atlanta, Georgia
- Dr. Charles Drew Academy, Ecorse, MI
- Charles R. Drew Intermediate School, Crosby, Texas
- Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School, San Francisco, Ca.
The Charles R. Drew Papers
- Biographical Information
- Education and Early Medical Career, 1922-1938
- Becoming “the Father of the Blood Bank,” 1938-1941
- “My Chief Interest Was and Is Surgery”–Howard University, 1941-1950
- Further Readings
- Educational Resources
So much of our energy is spent in overcoming the constricting environment in which we live that little energy is left for creating new ideas or things. Whenever, however, one breaks out of this rather high-walled prison of the “Negro problem” by virtue of some worthwhile contribution, not only is he himself allowed more freedom, but part of the wall crumbles. And so it should be the aim of every student in science to knock down at least one or two bricks of that wall by virtue of his own accomplishment.–Charles R. Drew to Mrs. J. F. Bates, a Fort Worth, Texas schoolteacher, January 27, 1947
Charles Richard Drew, the African American surgeon and researcher who organized America’s first large-scale blood bank and trained a generation of black physicians at Howard University, was born in Washington, DC, on June 3, 1904. His father, Richard, was a carpet layer and financial secretary of the Carpet, Linoleum, and Soft-Tile Layers Union–and its only non-white member. His mother, Nora Burrell Drew, was a graduate of the Miner Normal School, though she never worked as a school teacher. Charles and his younger siblings, Joseph, Elsie, and Nora, grew up in the largely middle-class and interracial neighborhood of Foggy Bottom (a third sister, Eva, was born after the family moved to Arlington, Virginia, in 1920.) Their upbringing emphasized academic education and church membership, as well as civic knowledge and personal competence, responsibility, and independence. At the age of twelve, Charlie (as he was called, even as an adult) became a paper boy, selling several Washington papers from a street corner stand; within a year, he had six other boys working for him and covering a wider area. As he got older, his after-school and summer jobs included supervising at city playgrounds, lifeguarding at the local swimming pool, and working construction jobs.
Washington was still racially segregated during that era, but its large African American community included many prosperous and well-educated families, and their public schools were often excellent. Drew attended Stevens Elementary and then Dunbar High School, which was then one of the best college preparatory schools–for blacks or whites–in the country. Though bright, he was not an outstanding student; instead, he devoted much of his effort to athletics, where he excelled. Ambitious and competitive, he lettered in four sports, and won the James E. Walker Medal for all-round athletic performance in both his junior and senior years. He was voted “best athlete,” “most popular student,” and “student who has done the most for the school.” He also served as captain of Company B in the Third Regiment of the High School Cadet Corps during his senior year. Drew did not express any early medical ambitions; his senior yearbook entry noted that he aspired to become an electrical engineer.
Drew graduated from Dunbar in 1922 and went to Amherst College in Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship. His achievements on the Amherst track and football teams were legendary; long after he distinguished himself as a blood banking pioneer and medical educator, many still remembered him best as an athlete. As in high school, Drew did not excel scholastically. He did, however, develop an interest in the medical sciences through his biology courses with Otto Glaser. Later, he would also cite the death of his oldest sister, Elsie (from tuberculosis complicated by influenza), in 1920, and his own hospitalization for a college football injury as events that fostered his interest in medicine. Drew received his AB from Amherst in 1926. To earn money for medical school, he took a job as athletic director and instructor of biology and chemistry at Morgan College (now Morgan State University), in Baltimore. During his two years at Morgan, his coaching transformed its mediocre sports teams into serious collegiate competitors.
The racial segregation of the pre-Civil Rights era constrained Drew’s options for medical training. Some prominent medical schools, such as Harvard, accepted a few non-white students each year, but most African Americans aspiring to medical careers trained at black institutions such as the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC, or Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Drew applied to Howard, but was not accepted because he lacked enough credits in English from Amherst. Harvard accepted him, but wanted to defer his admission to the following year. Not wanting to wait, Drew applied to the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montréal, which had a reputation for better treatment of minorities.
McGill University allowed its graduate and professional students to play on school teams, and Drew once again became a star athlete. But he also became a star student, winning several important prizes and fellowships, and graduating second in a class of 137, in 1933. During his internship and surgical residency at Montréal General Hospital, 1933-1935, he worked closely with bacteriology professor John Beattie, who was exploring ways to treat shock with transfusion and other fluid replacement. This work fostered an interest in transfusion medicine that Drew would later pursue in his blood bank research. Drew hoped to extend his training with a surgical residency in the United States, preferably at the Mayo Clinic, but major American medical centers rarely took on African American residents, partly because many white patients in that era would refuse to be treated by black physicians. In 1935, he joined the faculty at Howard University College of Medicine, starting as a pathology instructor, and then progressing to surgical instructor and to chief surgical resident at Freedmen’s Hospital.
Howard’s College of Medicine was upgrading its programs with help from the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board. This effort included appointing well-qualified white department chairs to set up and run residency programs and train black successors, along with fellowships for further training of junior faculty. Drew trained with Department of Surgery chair Edward Lee Howes for three years and then got a fellowship to train with eminent surgeon Allen O. Whipple at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, while earning a doctorate in medical science from Columbia University. At Presbyterian, he worked with John Scudder on studies relating to treating shock, fluid balance, blood chemistry and preservation, and transfusion. His main project with Scudder–and the basis for his dissertation–was an experimental blood bank at Presbyterian, opened in August 1939. In June 1940, Drew received his doctorate in medical science from Columbia, becoming the first African American to earn the degree there.
While attending a conference in April 1939, Drew met Minnie Lenore Robbins, a professor of home economics at Spelman College in Atlanta. They married in September of that year, and had three daughters and a son. (The eldest daughter, Bebe, born in 1940, was named for the blood bank–BB–project her father was immersed in at the time.)
With his fellowship completed, Drew returned to Howard University to take up duties as assistant professor of surgery. He was called back to New York in September 1940 to direct the Blood for Britain project. Great Britain, then under attack by Germany, was in desperate need of blood and plasma to treat military and civilian casualties. In August, Presbyterian and five other New York hospitals had begun a collaborative effort to collect and ship plasma (the fluid, non-cellular portion of blood) to Britain. Although others had developed the basic methods for plasma use, Drew, as medical director, instituted uniform procedures and standards for collecting blood and processing blood plasma at the participating hospitals. When the program ended in January 1941, Drew was appointed assistant director of a pilot program for a national blood banking system, jointly sponsored by the National Research Council and the American Red Cross. Among his innovations were mobile blood donation stations, later called “bloodmobiles.” Ironically, as the blood bank effort expanded in preparation for America’s entry into the war, the armed forces initially stipulated that the Red Cross exclude African Americans from donating; thus Drew, a leading expert in blood banking, was ineligible to participate in the program he helped establish. The policy was soon modified to accept blood donations from blacks, but required that these be segregated. Throughout the war, Drew criticized these policies as unscientific and insulting to African Americans.
While working on the Blood for Britain project, Drew also passed his American Board of Surgery exams, receiving certification early in 1941. He returned to Howard University and in October became chair of the Department of Surgery and Chief of Surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital. He also became the first African American to be appointed an examiner for the American Board of Surgery. For the next nine years he devoted himself to training and mentoring his medical students and surgical residents, and raising standards in black medical education. He also campaigned against the exclusion of black physicians from local medical societies, medical specialty organizations, and the American Medical Association.
Drew’s innovative work was recognized by awards and honors including the 1942 E. S. Jones Award for Research in Medical Science from the John A. Andrew Clinic in Tuskegee, AL; an appointment to the American-Soviet Committee on Science in 1943; the 1944 Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, for his work on blood and plasma; honorary doctorates from Virginia State College (1945) and Amherst College (1947); and election to the International College of Surgeons in 1946.
Drew died on April 1, 1950, in Burlington, North Carolina, from injuries sustained in a car accident while en route to a conference. Despite the prompt and competent care he received from the white physicians at a nearby hospital, he was too badly injured to survive. Drew’s tragic death generated a persistent myth that he died because he was denied admission to the white hospital, or was denied a transfusion, but such stories have been debunked repeatedly. Though he died prematurely, Drew left a substantial legacy, embodied in his blood bank work and especially in the graduates of the Howard University College of Medicine.
- 1904 –Born June 3 in Washington, DC to Richard and Nora Drew
- 1922 –Graduated from Dunbar High School, Washington, DC
- 1926 –Received AB from Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts
- 1926-28 –Athletic Director and Instructor in Biology and Chemistry at Morgan College, Baltimore, Maryland
- 1933 –Received MD and Master of Surgery from McGill University Faculty of Medicine, Montréal, Canada
- 1933-35 –Internship and residency at Montréal General Hospital
- 1935-36 –Instructor in Pathology at Howard University School of Medicine, Washington, DC
- 1936-37 –Assistant instructor in Surgery at Howard University and surgical resident at Freedmen’s Hospital
- 1937-38 –Instructor in Surgery at Howard University and Assistant Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital
- 1938-40 –Graduate work at Columbia University and surgical resident at Presbyterian Hospital, New York
- 1939 –Married Minnie Lenore Robbins on September 23; they had three daughters (Bebe, Charlene, and Rhea) and a son (Charles Jr.)
- 1940 –Received Doctorate in Medical Science from Columbia University for research and dissertation on blood banking; returned to Howard University School of Medicine as assistant professor of surgery and surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital (June)
- September 1940-January 1941 –Medical supervisor for the Blood for Britain project organized by the the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association in New York
- February 1941 –Appointed Assistant Director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank (Presbyterian Hospital, New York) and Assistant Director of Blood Procurement for the National Research Council, in charge of blood for use by the U.S. Army and Navy
- April 1941 –Certified a diplomate of the American Board of Surgery, returned to Howard University School of Medicine
- October 1941 –Appointed professor and Head of the Department of Surgery at Howard University, and chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital, certified as an examiner for the American Board of Surgery
- 1944-46 –Chief of Staff, Freedmen’s Hospital
- 1944 –Received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for work on the British and American blood plasma projects
- 1946 –Elected fellow of International College of Surgeons
- 1946-48 –Medical Director, Freedmen’s Hospital
- 1949 –Consultant to U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Office, part of a team to assess health care in post-war Europe
- 1950 –Died April 1 of injuries received in car accident near Burlington, North Carolina
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