Charles Richard Drew
June 3, 1904 – April 1, 1950
Notable For: Developing improved techniques for blood storage
Charles Richard Drew was born in Washington, D.C., the first of Richard and Nora Burrell Drew’s four children. Richard, Sr. was a carpet layer and union financial secretary while Nora was a stay-at-home mom. At the time, D.C. was racially segregated but the Foggy Bottom neighborhood where the Drews lived was interracial and mostly middle class. Drew and his siblings had well-rounded childhoods where they were encouraged to take their education seriously, attend church regularly, and be responsible for themselves and to their community.
Drew was a student at Steven Elementary and the esteemed Dunbar High School where he proved himself to be smart though not a spectacular student. But, he stood out as an entrepreneurial leader and athlete. As a preteen Drew earned money as a paperboy and hired friends to work with him to deliver papers. Within a year he’d organized an estimated six to ten of his friends which enabled them to deliver 2000 newspapers each day as a group. He was a multi-sport athlete who won several competitions in elementary school and also played football, basketball, and other sports in his later years.
His athletic prowess earned him a scholarship to Amherst College where he experienced racism from both opponents and the team’s management. Despite these difficulties, he became a track and football star earning Howard Hill Mossman and Thomas W Ashley trophies. Drew found direction in the classroom when biology courses with Otto Glaser sparked an interest in medical sciences. Experiencing the death of his sister and receiving treatment for a football injury furthered his interest in medicine.
After completing his undergraduate degree in 1926, Drew didn’t have enough money to immediately enroll in medical school. Instead, he joined the faculty at what is now Morgan State University and worked for two years as a biology and chemistry professor and athletic director. Drew applied to Howard and Harvard medical schools but ultimately enrolled at McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montréal which was regarded as a great school for aspiring Black medical professionals.
While at McGill, Drew was able to once again personally participate in collegiate sports but also distinguished himself as a student. He received academic awards and fellowships which culminated with him graduating second in his class with Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees. Drew’s focus on blood transfusions and banking developed during his internship and residency where he studied with Dr. John Beattie, a bacteriologist who was researching the use of fluid transfusions to treat shock.
When Charles, Sr. passed away in 1934, Drew returned to Washington, D.C. to be closer to his mother and siblings. He accepted a pathology professor position at Howard University College of Medicine and later enrolled in a one-year surgical residency at Freedmen’s Hospital. As a result of Howard’s relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation, Drew was able to receive additional training and later a fellowship at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital and a doctorate from Columbia University.
At the time, hospitals struggled to maintain adequate blood supplies as whole blood expired after a week and there were no effective methods for separating blood to extend its shelf life. While at Presbyterian Hospital, Drew studied the stored blood that was kept at the hospital’s blood bank for his doctoral dissertation. In 1939, he successfully separated plasma from blood cells, achieving a shelf life of two months. Plasma was not a complete replacement for whole blood but it could replenish blood volume and assist with clotting which was incredibly important in cases of trauma.
Drew’s discovery coincided with the start of World War II and the rapidly expanding need for a dependable supply of blood and plasma. When the Blood for Britain project launched in New York City Drew was selected as its director. He developed standardized processes for collecting blood, separating the plasma, and distributing the supply. The success of the project led to Drew joining the American Red Cross to lead their new national blood banking program. The new project utilized local buildings and mobile stations to collect blood in communities around the country before processing the blood in one location under strict guidelines.
With the success of multiple programs, Drew became the director of the Red Cross’ New York blood bank which oversaw the collection of blood for the U.S. military. This new appointment brought Drew into direct contact with institutional racism. Military policy at first did not allow Black people to donate blood and after the policy was changed required blood from Black donors to be kept separate from the blood of White donors. Drew’s public criticism of these policies resulted in him being forced to resign after a short tenure.
In 1941, Drew returned to Washington, D.C. where he became the chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital and a professor and head of the surgery department at Howard University. Over the next decade, he would continue to teach future Black medical professionals while also raising educational standards. He became the first Black examiner for the American Board of Surgery. And a few years later was appointed a Fellow of the International College of Surgeons.
While returning from a medical conference in Alabama it’s believed that Drew fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed in North Carolina. The other three passengers in the vehicle survived but Drew’s injuries were very severe. He was rushed to a local hospital where he received care but Charles Drew passed away on April 1, 1950, at the age of 45. He was survived by his wife and four children.
- “Biographical Overview | Charles R. Drew – Profiles in Science.” n.d. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Accessed August 17, 2020. https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/spotlight/bg/feature/biographical-overview.
- “Charles Drew.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. July 29, 2019. https://www.biography.com/scientist/charles-drew.
- “The Color of Blood.” 2018. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smithsonian. February 15, 2018. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/color-blood.
- Tan, Siang Yong, and Christopher Merritt. 2017. “Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950): Father of Blood Banking.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Singapore Medical Association. October 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5651504/.
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