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DR. CHARLES R. DREW: A Truly Extraordinary Life

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

CHARLES RICHARD DREW, M.D., (born June 3, 1904; died April 1, 1950, aged 45) was a brilliant African-American physician and gifted surgeon, world renowned medical researcher, beloved teacher, and visionary, whose discoveries in the field of transfusion medicine have earned him the lofty title,“Father of Blood Banking”. His seminal research revolutionized healthcare. He developed techniques to extend the shelf-life and quality of whole blood and plasma (blood in which the cells have been removed and clotting factors remain). His pioneering work in human blood preservation, separation, storage, distribution, and donation, has literally helped save millions of lives worldwide. He was the first Medical Director of the American Red Cross blood donor centers, which he established and managed, and the inventor of the Bloodmobile, which greatly facilitated blood donation by the public. Collectively, Dr. Drew’s life is a testament to the fact that one man’s work can have an infinite impact on public health from generation to generation.

Charles “Charlie” Drew was born in Washington, DC, the oldest of five children to an African-American couple, his father Richard Drew, a carpet layer, and his mother, Nora Burrell Drew, a teacher. Although Washington was mostly segregated, he grew up in Foggy Bottom, a largely middle-class and interracial neighborhood. In their home, his parents emphasized academic achievement, church membership, civic knowledge, and personal responsibility. At age twelve, he recruited a crew of six other boys for a newspaper route that delivered over a thousand newspapers daily. Drew attended Washington's Dunbar High School, an elite, all-Black public academy. His high school yearbook described him as “ambitious, popular, athletic, and sturdy”. He was a star athlete in football and track. A bright, but unexceptional student at the time, he aimed to become an electrical engineer. He also served as captain of the school’s Cadet Corps. Drew won a partial athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he lettered all four years in football and track. Though denied selection as captain of the football team because he was Black, the track team unanimously elected him captain. He graduated from Amherst in 1926 with an AB degree.

Two life events inspired Drew’s career in medicine. The first was the death of his sister, Elsie, in 1918 from complications of influenza. The second was his own hospitalization for a football injury suffered at college. His stay was lengthy, and he took to exploring the hospital at Amherst in his wheelchair. He became so fascinated with hospital procedures that his desire turned to becoming a physician. Due to racial segregation, his choices for medical school were severely limited. Only a handful of schools accepted Black applicants; included in those were two all Black institutions – Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC with its associated Freedmen’s Hospital (created to serve freed slaves during the Civil War) and Meharry Medical College in Nashville,TN. The more liberal leaning Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA did as well. Drew applied to Howard and Harvard. Short of a few credits in English, Howard denied his application. Harvard accepted him, but waitlisted him for a year. Impatient to begin his medical studies, Drew declined the Harvard offer and instead applied and was accepted to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, which by reputation was more welcoming to Blacks. He set out for Canada in 1928. Drew excelled at McGill, and was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA), the National Medical Student Honor Society.

Tribute to Dr. Charles Drew by McGill University, Montreal, Canada, his medical school alma mater:

Drew’s future contributions began taking shape. Blood group ABO (type) antigens had been discovered by the 1930 Nobel Laureate Karl Landsteiner, but the practicality of transfusing blood remained an impediment as there were no refined methods for the separation of blood components. In the early part of the 20th century, only unpreserved whole blood, which has a shelf-life of only a few days under refrigeration, was available. Given this limitation, hospitals worldwide struggled to maintain an adequate and ready supply of blood of the appropriate type. At McGill, under the mentorship of Dr. John Beattie, Drew began researching the degradation of blood under various conditions, and the effects of blood-loss related shock and methods of its treatment via transfusion resuscitation.

In 1933, Drew earned his Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Master of Surgery from McGill. He then returned to the US for further surgical training. Fate would also provide another reason; his father died in 1934, and his return enabled him to be close to his mother and siblings. In 1936, he completed a surgical residency at Freedmen’s Hospital. In 1938, Drew earned a Rockefeller Fellowship in Surgery at Columbia University’s renowned Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Under the tutelage of revered surgeon, Dr. Allen Whipple, he was assigned to the laboratory of Dr.John Scudder. There Drew pursued his most well-known research that dramatically extended the shelf-life of blood through his discovery of novel techniques of its preservation and separation into its components – whole blood that includes the oxygen-carrying red cells, and plasma with its clotting factors. His discovery that plasma could be stored or “banked" without refrigeration for up to two months, dried and reconstituted with no deterioration during transport, and that everyone has the same type of plasma, revolutionized transfusion science. Plasma could now be substituted for whole blood in any recipient regardless of blood type. Scudder called Drew’s research dissertation

“a masterpiece–one of the most distinguished essays ever written, both in form and content.”

In 1940, for his groundbreaking research, Drew became the first Black American to earn a Doctorate in Medical Science from Columbia University.

For Drew, his love for his work had been all consuming. But in 1939, while visiting Atlanta, GA, he became smitten with a young woman he met at a party. After a brief courtship, Drew married Minnie Lenore Robbins, a native Philadelphian and teacher. They made their home in Washington and had four children (three daughters and a son). Drew returned to Howard as an Assistant Professor of Surgery, but his tenure was cut short. World War II was raging in Europe, and England was suffering enormous military and civilian casualties under the German aerial bombing raids. They were in desperate need of plasma, with its blood clotting properties. However, their own supply was insufficient and was spoiling due to preparation and storage issues. Learning of the Brits’ problems and anticipating the US would likely soon enter the war, the US Surgeon General and the National Research Council (NRC) approached The Blood Transfusion Betterment Association (BTBA), a conglomerate of NY Hospitals, requesting they organize a large-scale effort to send desperately needed plasma overseas. The project was labeled the “Blood for Britain Campaign”. Under its enormity, the ambitious effort struggled until it became clear that one man was ideally suited for the project. In September 1940, Drew answered the urgent call to head the operation. By year’s end, he had made critical improvements in quality control of the thousands of units of blood and plasma sent to Britain, ensuring sterility and quality were maintained. In the five months the project ran, over 15,000 Americans donated blood at newly established collection sites, laying the groundwork for the modern blood banking system. Thousands of British lives were saved as a result of Drew’s heroic effort.

Drew’s success with the British campaign led to his appointment in 1941 as Director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank (based in NY) and the Assistant Director of the NRC, which was responsible for blood procurement for the US Army and Navy. Among his innovations at the Red Cross were mobile blood donation stations, later called “bloodmobiles” and a network of nationwide donation centers. However, his time at the Red Cross was short lived. In 1941, the US may have been united against foreign enemies, but it remained divided by race. With US entry into the war imminent, the War Department issued a policy, adopted by the Red Cross, barring Black people from donating blood. It was the cruelest of ironies that Drew could not donate to the very program he labored so diligently to help establish. Later the policy was modified to require that all blood be identified by the donor’s race to prevent White soldiers from receiving blood from Black donors. After only a few months at the helm, Drew resigned in protest from the Red Cross and the NRC, finding the policy "indefensible". He later said,

It was a bad mistake for three reasons: 1. No official department of the Federal Government should willfully humiliate its citizens; 2. There is no scientific basis for the order; 3.They need the blood. We are at war.

The War Department admitted there were no “biologically convincing” reasons for the policy, but stated that in America it was “psychologically important” to whites.The policy would not be rescinded until 1950.

CBS This Morning: How Dr. Drew's groundbreaking discoveries are helping in the fight against COVID-19 :

The harsh realities of racism were in stark contrast to the excellence Drew and his work represented. In April 1941, he became a certified diplomat of the American Board of Surgery. He rejoined the faculty at Howard University and was named Head of the Department of Surgery and Chief Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital. Drew became the first Black American to be appointed an examiner for the American Board of Surgery. In 1944, the NAACP awarded him their highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. He became a Fellow of the International College of Surgeons in 1946, and was given an honorary doctor of science degree by Amherst in 1947. Yet, he was denied membership in the local chapter of the American Medical Association, which was a means of preventing Black physicians from obtaining admitting privileges at many hospitals. In 1949, despite the US government’s hypocrisy, Drew again served his country as a consultant to the US Surgeon General on the status of surgical facilities in post-war Europe.

With all his exceptional achievements, Drew most relished the role of teacher, and believed it would be his greatest and most enduring contribution to medicine. He became a beloved teacher at Howard, training Black American surgeons to achieve the most rigorous standards in their specialty, and they in turn through what he called “discipleship” were to nurture the tradition of excellence in future generations of Black surgeons. In 1948, Drew’s entire first class of surgical residents passed the certification exam of the American Board of Surgery, with two receiving top marks. True to his upbringing, Drew was also a real Renaissance man, enjoying diverse interests including playing the saxophone, opera, carpentry, gardening, and swimming.

On April 1,1950, unimaginable tragedy struck. In the early morning hours, Drew and three other Black surgeons started the long drive from Washington to Tuskegee, AL to volunteer at the annual free clinic at John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital. Having worked late into the night the prior day, it is presumed Drew fell asleep at the wheel in the small town of Haw River, NC. After careening off the road, the car somersaulted. Two men were thrown clear of the car, but Drew was partially trapped inside. Two suffered only minor injuries, a third suffered a concussion and a broken arm (Dr. John Ford), but Drew suffered injuries to his head and severe crush injuries to his chest and legs. Drew and Ford were taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, Alamance General, a small segregated White-run facility. Drew and Ford received care in the emergency room, where two White surgeons could not stabilize him for transfer to Duke University, the closest large medical center. In a later personal account by Ford, who informed the emergency staff of Drew’s identity, he praised them for their attempt to save Drew’s life, saying,“There was nothing to be done because of his extensive injuries.” Drew died in the emergency room. Ford was admitted to the “Negro” section of the hospital for several days, before being transferred to an all-Black hospital. To this day, some degree of speculation surrounds the circumstances of his tragic death, prompted in large part by the ugly true history of Black patients who died when denied critically needed care at White hospitals. In addition, the irony of the then lack of current everyday life saving measures like seat belts, airbags, and modern trauma techniques is not lost here.

Speaking to a group of physicians at Howard shortly after his death, Minnie Lenore Drew poignantly eulogized her late husband,

“He could not see that death would put a period at the end of this time. Yet it almost seems that destiny walked hand in hand with him and that when 1950 came, he quietly laid down his tools and said as Paul in the Bible, ‘ I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.’ ”

Since his death, Dr. Drew has received innumerous honors and accolades: a 1981 US postage stamp, numerous hospitals and schools named for him, an eponymous graduate fellowship at McGill University, the US Naval Ship Charles Drew, his portrait in the National Institutes of Health, the Charles R. Drew Endowed Chair of Surgery at Howard University Hospital. The list goes on and on. Although longevity was not his fate, Dr. Charles R. Drew lived a truly extraordinary life. He stands as one of the giants of modern medicine. His is a legacy of excellence of endeavor, service to humanity, and patriotic duty. He shouldered the burdens of racism and discrimination by shattering the pernicious lies they represent. His mantra expresses succinctly how he lived his life,

“Excellence of performance will overcome any artificial barriers created by man.”

For all he gave us, we humbly say, “Thank you, Dr. Charles Drew.”

Video: The Legacy of Dr. Charles Drew (The Hemophilia Society)

Video: Through the eyes of a daughter, Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis


S. Patricia Pearson, M.D.

Coalition4Justice, Steering Committee

Advancing Equity and Justice Together



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