Charles Drew, the “father of blood banking”

February 11, 2014 at 10:50 am

charles_drewIt’s hard to imagine where we would be without the contributions of Dr. Charles Drew, the “father of blood banking.”

The eldest son of a carpet layer and a teacher, Drew grew up in Washington D.C. His athletic talents led him to a scholarship at Amherst College, where he graduated in 1926. Drew dreamed of becoming a doctor and worked as a coach and biology instructor at Morgan University in Baltimore to raise money for medical school after finishing college.

Drew faced a problem though: only two medical schools in the US accepted African American students at that time. Howard University rejected him, and Harvard wanted him to wait another year, so he looked to our neighbors up North, graduating second in his class from Montreal’s McGill University in 1933 with a MD and Master of Surgery.

Drew stayed in Canada for his internship and residency at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Montreal General Hospital, examining issues related to blood transfusions. He returned to the US in 1935 as an instructor at Howard University’s medical school before receiving a Rockefeller scholarship at Columbia in 1938.

It was during his time at Columbia that Drew developed a way to preserve blood plasma by drying it, allowing it to be stored (“banked”) for longer periods of time. This became the basis of his doctorate thesis, “Banked Blood.”

battlefield-plasma

Image from PhotosNormandie via Creative Commons

Drew’s expertise was put to use in 1940 as World War II tore apart Europe. In combat situations, plasma is used to treat shock and replace lost fluids, and Drew’s doctoral thesis made him the perfect leader of Blood for Britain, a relief effort to collect plasma in the US and ship it to Britain. This model not only provided immediate relief to the UK, but served as research for what might be necessary if the US entered the war. It also introduced mobile blood collections, “bloodmobiles”

However, Drew became discouraged with the racism he saw in these war efforts. At first, the military excluded African American donors, meaning that Drew himself couldn’t donate. In 1942, it was decided that African Americans could donate, but their blood would be segregated. Some say this may have led him to quit his position in 1941, returning to Howard University. The same year, he became the first black surgeon picked to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.

Drew spent the remainder of his career training and mentoring African American surgeons, petitioning medical organizations for equal admission regardless of race, and speaking out against the Red Cross’ discriminatory donation practices.

He died in a car accident on the way to a free clinic in Tuskegee 1950.

Our friends at OneBlood have put together a great video with more on Drew’s contributions to the field of blood banking: