Who Is Dr. Charles R. Drew?

Profile of Dr. Charles R. Drew, developer of techniques for storing and transfusing blood plasma.

Charles Richard Drew was born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. His father Thomas Drew was a carpet layer and his mother Nora Burrell Drew was a teacher. After Charles' birth, his mother quit her job to stay at home with him and his three siblings. Although the family was poor, Charles' parents were very proud and stressed the value of education to their children. Thomas Drew told his children to "Do what you believe in. Take a stand and don't get licked."

Charles Drew was very athletic as a child. His family lived near a farm where racehorses were trained and he learned how to care for and ride horses. Charles attended Stevens Elementary School where he played baseball and football. The elementary school is still located on Twenty-first Street between K and L streets in Washington. President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, was enrolled at Stevens while he was in office in 1976. Charles attended Dunbar High School where he won letters in track, baseball, basketball and football. He won the James E. Walker Memorial Medal as outstanding all-around athlete.

After graduation from high school, Charles attended Amherst College in Massaschusetts on a scholarship. He was named an all-American halfback and won the Thomas W. Ashley Memorial Trophy as the Most Valuable Player on Amherst's football team. He graduated in 1926 and received the Howard Hill Mossman trophy for his outstanding contributions to Amherst sports. After college, he became Director of Athletics and biology instructor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. He worked at Morgan State for two years and led the football and basketball teams to championship levels.

Drew was always interested in science and wanted to pursue a medical career. He attended medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He participated in sports while in medical school and won many championships. He was captain of the track team and won the all-time top score at McGill in intercollegiate track competition.

One of Drew's instructors in anatomy was John Beattie a British doctor. Beattie was stydiying the techniques and problems of blood transfusion. Patients often died from a loss of blood after accidents or surgery before the 1930's and researchers were investigating ways to replace the lost blood through transfusions. Although Dr. Karl Landsteiner had discovered the four different blood types, and found that the body would not reject a donor with the same blood type, the problem of finding a compatible donor in an emergency was unsolved. Drew was interested in solving that problem.

Drew graduated from McGill in 1933. That year he won the annual prize in neuroanatomy, the study of the structure of the nervous system, and the Williams Prize, passing an examination and scoring in the top five in his class. He interned at the Royal Victoria and Montreal General Hospitals. In 1935, he became an instructor in pathology at Howard University Medical School in Washington, DC. In addition to teaching, he was assistant surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital.

In 1938, he was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship to continue his studies at Columbia University in New York City. He began a residency in surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and devoted his research to studying blood transfusions and the storing of blood. During his research he discovered that plasma, which is the liquid portion of blood that does not contain cells, could be dried and stored for an extended period of time without deteriorating. This great discovery was noted worldwide. In 1939, he received a grant from the Blood Transfusion Association and opened a blood storage bank at the Columbia Presybterian Hospital.

In 1940, Charles Drew received a doctor of science degree. He became the first African American to be awarded this degree. The subject of his thesis was Banked Blood. During World War II, Drew's former instructor, John Beattie, was Director of Research Laboratories at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. He was in charge of blood transfusions for the Royal Air Force and asked Drew to assist him in providing blood. Drew took thousands of pints of dried plasma to England and was named medical supervisor of blood for Great Britain. He organized a system of volunteer blood donors and centralized the collection of donated blood where he processed the blood and separated out the plasma. The project was later taken over by the American Red Cross and Drew became director of the blood bank in New York. He also became assistant director of blood procurement for the National Research Council for the U.S. Army and Navy.

Because of racial segregation, the Army Navy and Red Cross had separate blood banks for blacks and whites. Because the blood had to be collected and stored separately, it was costly and time consuming. Commenting on this situation, Drew said,

"I feel that the recent ruling of the United States Army and Navy regarding the refusal of colored blood donors is an indefensible one from any point of view. As you know, there is no scientific basis for the separation of the bloods of different races except on the basis of the individual blood types or groups."

Because of the discrimination, Drew resigned from the blood bank program. He returned to Howard University Medical School as professor and head of surgery. He was also chief of surgery at Freedmen's Hospital and was elected to the International College of Surgeons in 1946. In 1949, he was appointed a surgical consultant for the Army's European Theater of Operations.

On April 1, 1950, he gave at speech at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. At two o'clock in the morning, he left the city with three other doctors in the car, to travel back home after an exhausting day. He fell asleep at the wheel and ran off the road. Although his life was cut short at the age of 46, the techniques he developed for storing and transfusing blood continue to be used to save lives. In 1981, the U.S. Postal Served issued a stamp in the Great Americans series in his honor. In 1966, the Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School was incorporated in the State of California as a private, non-profit, educational institution.

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