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.