Charles Richard Drew (3 June 1904 – 1 April 1950) was an American physician, surgeon and medical researcher. He researched in the field of blood transfusions, developing improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge to developing large-scale blood banks early in World War II. This allowed medics to save thousands of lives of the Allied forces. The research and development aspect of his blood storage work is disputed. Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation, an action which cost him his job. In 1943, Drew’s distinction in his profession was recognized when he became the first black surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.
Drew’s athletic achievements helped win him a scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts and he graduated in 1926. An outstanding athlete at Amherst, Drew also joined Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He attended medical school at McGill University in Montreal, receiving his M.D. in 1933 as well as a Master of Surgery degree, and ranked 2nd in his class of 127 students. A few years later, Drew did graduate work at Columbia University, where he earned his Doctor of Medical Science degree, becoming the first African American to do so.
Soon after he began his career due to his excellence, Dr. Drew was selected in 1943 as the first black surgeon to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. Drew had a lengthy research and teaching career, and became a chief surgeon.
Blood Plasma for Great Britain Project
In late 1940, during World War II before the US entered the war, and just after earning his doctorate, Drew was recruited by John Scudder to help set up and administer an early prototype program for blood storage and preservation. He was to collect, test, and transport large quantities of blood plasma for distribution in Great Britain. Drew went to New York to direct the United States’ Blood for Britain project. The Blood for Britain project was a project to aid British soldiers and civilians by giving US blood to Great Britain.
Drew created a central location for the blood collection process where donors could go to give blood. He made sure all blood plasma was tested before it was shipped out. He ensured that only skilled personnel handled blood plasma to avoid the possibility of contamination. The Blood for Britain program operated successfully for five months, with total collections of almost 15,000 people donating blood, and with over 5,500 vials of blood plasma. As a result, the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association applauded Drew for his work. Out of his work came the American Red Cross Blood Bank.
From 1939, Drew attended the annual free clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. For the 1950 Tuskegee clinic, Drew and three other black physicians decided to drive rather than fly. Drew was driving around 8 a.m. on April 1. Still fatigued from spending the night before in the operating theater, Drew lost control of the vehicle. After careening into a field, the car somersaulted three times. The three other physicians suffered minor injuries. Drew was trapped with serious wounds; his foot had become wedged beneath the brake pedal. When reached by emergency technicians, Drew was in shock and barely alive due to severe leg injuries. Drew was taken to Alamance General Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina. He was pronounced dead a half hour after he first received medical attention. Drew’s funeral was held on April 5, 1950, at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
A persistent urban legend (even recounted in an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H and Philip Roth‘s The Human Stain) holds that Drew was denied care — ironically, a blood transfusion — at a nearby hospital because of his race and bled to death. In fact, Drew was well treated by the hospital. Claims that he was not treated because of his skin color are unfounded. As Dr. John Ford, one of the doctors traveling with Drew, later explained, “We all received the very best of care. The doctors started treating us immediately. […] He had a superior vena caval syndrome—blood was blocked getting back to his heart from his brain and upper extremities. To give him a transfusion would have killed him sooner. Even the most heroic efforts couldn’t have saved him. I can truthfully say that no efforts were spared in the treatment of Drew, and, contrary to popular myth, the fact that he was a Negro did not in any way limit the care that was given to him.”
Numerous schools and health-related facilities, as well as other institutions, have been named in honor of Dr. Drew.