Dr. Charles Drew: A Pioneer in Blood Transfusions in the Early 20th Century
During World War II, as casualties mounted, the need for blood increased.
By Jessie Kratz
United States National Archives
Charles Richard Drew (June 3, 1904–April 1, 1950) was an American surgeon, educator, and pioneering medical researcher on blood transfusions. He discovered that plasma had a longer shelf life than blood and could be separated to be used in transfusions. His work not only saved thousands during World War II, it also laid the groundwork for long-term blood preservation and storage techniques that have saved countless lives since.
Born in Washington, DC, in 1904, Drew attended Dunbar High School, where he was a good student and outstanding athlete, excelling in football, basketball, baseball, and track. He received an athletics scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he played football and was on the track and field team.
For two years after undergraduate school, while saving for medical school, Drew was a professor of chemistry and biology, the first athletic director, and football coach at the historically Black private Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland (now Morgan State University).
In 1928 Drew went to medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. While at McGill, he became interested in blood transfusions, which eventually became his lifelong work. In 1933 he graduated with a doctor of medicine and master of surgery degree.
After moving back to the Washington, DC, area, Drew worked on the faculty at Howard University and as an instructor in surgery and an assistant surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital. Now Howard University Hospital, Freedmen’s Hospital was a federally operated facility associated with Howard University.
Drew completed graduate and postgraduate work at Columbia University, earning his doctor of science at surgery in 1940. His ground-breaking doctoral thesis was called “Banked Blood: A Study on Blood Preservation.” He was the first African American to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia.
During World War II, as casualties mounted, the need for blood increased. As the leading authority in blood transfusions, Drew was recruited to be the medical director of the Blood for Britain project, and was tasked with creating a blood bank for British soldiers and civilians. Based in New York City, Drew set up a system for recruiting volunteers to donate blood, which would be shipped overseas.
Drawing on Drew’s research, the project separated the plasma, stored and tested it, and then shipped it to Britain through the Red Cross. The project was immensely successful—it collected over 14,500 blood donations and sent 5,000 liters of plasma to Britain.
In January 1941, the U.S. federal government asked the National Research Council and the American Red Cross to establish a blood program, and Drew became the director of the new American Red Cross Blood Bank. Under Drew’s leadership, the organizations were in charge of blood used by the U.S. Army and Navy.
Drew’s stint with the Red Cross, however, was short-lived. At the time, the Red Cross segregated blood by race even though they acknowledged there was no scientific foundation for the practice. Instead, they defended their policy by arguing it was what the recipients wanted (but did not provide any evidence supporting this claim). As a result of this blatantly racist and discriminatory practice, Drew resigned and returned to Freedmen’s Hospital and Howard University.
While Drew may be best known for his groundbreaking research in the development of blood plasma, one of Drew’s major legacies was teaching and training Black medical students and advocating for more opportunities for Black medical students and surgeons. Between 1941 and 1950, more than half of the Black surgeons in the U.S. had studied under Drew.
Drew’s life was tragically cut short on April 1, 1950, when he was just 45 years old. While en route to a conference in Tuskegee, Alabama, with three other Black physicians, Drew was involved in a single car accident near Burlington, North Carolina. He was taken to a White hospital and given a blood transfusion, but his injuries were too severe, and he died shortly after receiving treatment. The only other passenger who was seriously injured was Dr. John Ford, but he soon recovered.
A rumor spread that Drew had died because the hospital refused to give him a blood transfusion. While believable because it was not uncommon for Black Americans to be denied treatment because of their race, this was a myth, something Drew’s daughter, then-DC Council Member Charlene Drew Jarvis, talks about in a 1996 article.
When speaking of Drew’s life and accomplishments, Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, president of Howard University from 1926 to 1960, said, “Here we have what rarely happens in history, a life which crowds into a handful of years significance so great, men will never forget it.”
Originally published by Pieces of History, United States National Archives and Records Administration, 02.08.2023, to the public domain.