African-American Doctor's Vital Legacy

Physician's Money Digest, September15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 17

In their finest hours, physicians savelives. Through his contributions in thestorage of blood and development ofthe blood bank, hematologist Charles R.Drew, MD, PhD, saved many lives. His timehere was cut short at age 46, but he neverwasted a moment.

Championship Status

Dr. Drew was born in Washington, DC,in 1904, to a poor African-American familywho valued education. Very athletic froman early age, he was named outstandingall-around athlete in high school.

He attended Amherst College on scholarshipand was named All-American halfbackand MVP on the football team.Graduating in 1926, he was awarded forbringing the most honors to the school.

The athlete/scholar went on to attendMcGill University's medical school in Canada.Throughout his studies, he participatedin sports, breaking records and winningacademic and athletic honors. While studyingat McGill, an anatomy professor, Dr.John Beattie, introduced him to the techniquesand limitations of blood transfusions.At the time, there was no solution tofinding a compatible donor in emergencycases, a problem Dr. Drew set out to solve.

Pivotal Firsts

Shortly after graduating from McGill in1933, Dr. Drew received the RockefellerFellowship to continue his studies atColumbia University. In 1940, Dr. Drewbecame the first African American toreceive a PhD in medicine.

His surgical residency involved considerableresearch into blood transfusions andstorage. During this time, the young doctordiscovered that plasma could be driedand stored for extended time periodswithout deteriorating. Noted worldwide,he received a grant to open a blood storagebank—the first of its kind.

During World War II, his former professor,Dr. Beattie, was in charge of bloodtransfusions for the Royal Air Force. Heasked Dr. Drew to assist him in providingblood. Dr. Drew took thousands of driedplasma pints to England and was namedmedical supervisor of blood for GreatBritain. He organized a system of volunteerblood donors, centralized the collection,and separated out the plasma.

In 1941, he became the first medicaldirector of the first American Red CrossBlood Bank, as well as the assistant directorof blood procurement for the US Armyand Navy's National Research Council.

Struggles Faced

Dr. Drew's dedication and innovationsaved the lives of thousands of woundedsoldiers during World War II. But he did soin the face of significantobstacles.Until 1949, the USmilitary and theRed Cross insistedon segregating thebanked blood according to race. Dr. Drewprotested this, pointing out that therewas no scientific difference betweenbloods of different races, and that segregationresulted in a needless, costly, anddangerously time-consuming process.

Dr. Drew resigned from the bloodbank program and returned to HowardUniversity Medical School as professorand head of surgery. On his way backfrom a speech in 1950, he was involved ina fatal car accident. He suffered such seriousinjuries that he died soon after beingadmitted to a nearby hospital. He left theworld life-saving techniques that continueto be used today.