Charles R. Drew, a renowned physician and medical researcher and the first black surgeon examiner of the American Board of Surgery, revolutionized medicine by creating a system that allowed the immediate and safe transfusion of blood plasma.
Born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. to Richard T. Drew and Nora Burrell, Drew grew up in the city. He attended Dunbar High School, where his excellence in academics and athletics earned him an athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts.
After graduating from Amherst in 1926, he worked as Director of Athletics at Morgan College. In 1929, he attended medical school at McGill University in Canada, where he studied with Dr. Beattie and developed his interest in blood storage just before he graduated in 1933. In 1935, Drew returned to Washington D.C. to become a professor at Howard University’s medical school.
In 1938, the Rockefeller Foundation offered Drew a research fellowship at New York’s Columbia – Presbyterian Medical Center to study blood. While there he discovered that plasma, a pale yellow liquid without the blood cells could be stored, preserved, and used in time of emergency. Shortly after receiving a Ph.D., he was asked to direct a pilot program for collecting, testing, and distributing blood plasma in Great Britain. During the five-month program, Drew and his associates collected blood from over 15,000 people and gave about 1,500 transfusions.
With the success of the program, Drew gained international fame and was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Plasma Bank. During World War II, he recruited 100,000 blood donors for the U.S. Army and Navy. Their blood saved the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers. Ironically, the U.S. armed forces maintained a segregated blood donation system that refused to give blood from non-whites to white soldiers. Drew denounced the policy, stating that there’s no scientific evidence of any difference based on race, and was consequentially asked to resign. He returned to Washington D.C and became the head of Howard University’s Department of Surgery and later Chief Surgeon at the University's Freedman’s Hospital.
On April 1, 1950, while en route to a Tuskegee Institute (Alabama) medical conference, Drew fell asleep at the wheel and became trapped in the overturned car. Other doctors in the car attended him until he was taken to nearby Alamance Hospital, where he died within half an hour.
For some time a false story circulated that Drew died because white doctors at Alamance Hospital refused to treat him. The other African American doctors traveling with Drew attested to the valiant but ultimately unsuccessful efforts by the white physicians to save Drew’s life.
Spencie Love, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Chrisanne Becker, 100 African Americans who Shaped American History: Charles R. Drew (San Francisco: Blue Wood Books, 1995).