It Happened Here: Dr. Charles Drew

During World War II, an African-American surgeon helped pioneer a method that allowed blood to be stored for long periods and used in transfusions.

If you’ve ever donated or received blood, then you have Dr. Charles Richard Drew to thank for enhanced storage methods and higher quality transfusions. That’s because in 1938, under a research fellowship at what is now NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Dr. Drew helped pioneer a long-term technique for plasma storage, which helped in the production and transfer of blood.

“The principle of banking blood so that you could use it later changed everything, and Charles Drew was an important part of that revolution,” says Dr. Steven Spitalnik, director of Clinical Laboratories at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and executive vice chair of the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Dr. Drew is an amazing figure who is recognized in our field as one of the forefathers of improving blood storage.”

Dr. Drew’s interest in medicine stemmed from personal tragedy. Born in 1904, he was the eldest of five children in an African-American family, and he grew up to be a star student and athlete in a racially diverse section of Washington, D.C. When he was in high school, he decided to pursue a medical degree after his sister died of tuberculosis. He went on to earn a partial scholarship and graduated in 1926 from Amherst College in Massachusetts before spending two years as a biology and chemistry instructor at then-Morgan College in Baltimore.

Dr. Drew’s medical ambitions took shape when he was accepted into the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal. He graduated second in his class in 1933, completed his internship there and, in 1935, became an instructor in pathology at Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. He was promoted to assistant professor of surgery and chief surgical resident at Freedmen’s Hospital, the teaching hospital of Howard University, two years later.

It was at Howard University where Dr. Drew’s work separating plasma from blood made it possible to store blood for a week — before this, blood could only be stored for just a few days. He also discovered that transfusions could be performed with plasma alone, broadening the scope and reach of who could be treated.

“Dr. Drew’s research was at the cutting-edge of what he and others were doing at that time and have been doing since then to preserve blood and make higher quality blood products for transfusion into patients,” says Dr. Spitalnik.

In 1938, Dr. Drew won a Rockefeller Fellowship in advanced surgical training at what was then the Presbyterian Hospital in the City of New York (today’s NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center) to study the storage and distribution of blood. He was also named a resident in surgery and admitted to the Doctor of Medical Science program at Columbia University, one of the first African-American students to do this.

“Dr. Drew is an amazing figure who is recognized in our field as one of the forefathers of improving blood storage.”

— Dr. Spitalnik

Working in the Department of Surgery alongside Dr. John Scudder, one of the nation’s first blood transfusion specialists, Dr. Drew founded and administered an early prototype program for blood storage and preservation. By the time he received his doctorate in 1940, he had developed a technique for long-term plasma storage, leading to his nickname, “Father of the Blood Bank.”

The practical application of his work soon began when Great Britain requested 5,000 vials of dried plasma for transfusions — plus more three weeks later — for use in military hospitals during World War II. To meet the need, Dr. Drew organized blood drives at New York City hospitals. The program, called “Blood for Britain,” lasted five months, with 15,000 American blood donors participating.

“He was central to making sure that the plasma products that were sent to Britain were of high quality and useful for human patients,” adds Dr. Spitalnik.

Dr. Charles Drew with the first mobile blood collecting unit in 1941

Dr. Charles Drew with the first mobile blood collecting unit in 1941.

Courtesy: Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

The American Red Cross took note and asked Dr. Drew to be the first director of its blood bank, created as the U.S. prepared to enter the war. Dr. Drew accepted and, in February 1941, the Red Cross Blood Bank was underway, with 35 centers eventually set up throughout the U.S. to store blood reserves for injured servicemen. His work with the Red Cross, however, was short-lived. Later that year, Dr. Drew took a moral stand when the Red Cross announced it would segregate the blood of white and black donors. He denounced the decision on both moral and scientific grounds and resigned in protest.

Dr. Drew returned to Howard University as chair of surgery with a mission to train the next generation of African-American medical students. But his achievements did not stop there. In 1942, he became the first black surgeon to be named an examiner on the American Board of Surgery, and two years later he received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, honoring his contributions to human welfare. In 1946, Dr. Drew was elected to the International College of Surgeons, and a year later launched a movement to persuade the American Medical Association to admit black members.

Dr. Drew’s life ended shortly before his 47th birthday when he was killed in a car crash on his way to a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama, with his students. Dr. Drew had completed his overnight rounds and then presumably fell asleep in the early morning while behind the wheel. The three students traveling with him survived.

Though his life was cut short, his impact on medicine continues to be felt. Dr. Drew was posthumously honored with a medical university in Los Angeles named for him and, in 1981, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating his achievements as part of its “Great Americans” series.

“What I admire most about Dr. Drew is what he was able to accomplish professionally under very difficult circumstances without losing his humanity,” says Dr. Spitalnik. “That’s very impressive to me. That’s what makes him a hero — he had a vision and persevered and didn’t let obstacles stand in his way.”

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