The speculations surrounding the death of Dr. Charles R. Drew are steeped in rumor. Drew, a pioneer in blood banking and blood and plasma storage, may have died after being refused a blood transfusion.
In 1950, Drew was brought to a segregated hospital in North Carolina after falling asleep at the wheel while driving to a medical conference with other physicians. But surgeons at the hospital recognized the famed scientist and tried to save his life, making the rumors about his death false.
Many others in Drew’s time recognized him as the inventor of blood banking. However, he was also a mentor for Black physicians, the first Black man to receive a doctorate from Columbia University and the first-ever director of the American Red Cross. He has appeared on a U.S. postage stamp and had scholarships, schools and medical centers named after him. And his contributions to science changed the world.
What Did Charles Drew Do?
Drew was born in 1905 in Washington, D.C., the eldest of five children. His dad was a carpet layer, and the family lived modestly. Drew excelled academically and athletically and was awarded a scholarship to Amherst University in Massachusetts, where he ran track and played football.
Drew hoped to attend Howard University for medical school but was rejected because he needed more English credits. He was accepted at McGill University in Montreal and graduated in 1933 with high honors.
He began a residency at Freedmen’s Hospital, which was associated with Howard University, and then won a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study at Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, he researched blood banking and plasma storage. He was a pioneer in the field, and his work would soon prove to be lifesaving.
What Did Charles Drew Invent?
In the late 1930s, blood banking and plasma storage were difficult due to their short shelf life. Scientists also struggled with blood coagulating since it typically only lasting two days in storage. Many scientists thought learning about blood storage would occur in a clinical setting with a learn-as-you-go approach. Drew had the idea to move the study to a laboratory setting to observe how blood changed and how it could better be preserved.
Drew approached the problem from several angles. He considered how blood was collected — through an open or closed vessel or under a vacuum. Then Drew tested different types of anticoagulants and added preservatives. He experimented with the temperature in which the blood was stored and even considered whether the shape of the storage container made a difference.
Banking on Blood
Drew discovered how to separate red cells and plasma from whole blood. He also determined how to preserve red blood cells so they could last longer in storage. Along with his mentor, Drew published on the topic and showed other scientists it was possible to store both blood and plasma.
His discoveries would soon be needed. By the late 1930s, Europe was heading into war, and Great Britain would soon endure The Blitz, eight months of relentless bombing by Nazi Germany. Military officials wanted to increase their blood supply and turned to Drew for help.
In 1940, Drew received a message from a former McGill University professor who was then working on blood and plasma banking in Europe. The professor asked Drew to send 5,000 ampules of dried plasma as soon as possible. Drew had to deny the request and tell his professor that type of supply didn’t exist anywhere in the world — yet.
Blood for Britain
In 1940, Drew was chosen to lead Blood for Britain, a drive to collect, store and send blood and plasma to troops fighting in France. He then oversaw the successful collection, storage and delivery of 14,600 pints of plasma.
The American Red Cross wanted Drew to establish the first U.S. blood bank within the year. Drew returned to the U.S. and created a structure of collection stations throughout the country. When the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, plasma was already on hand to treat the bombing victims.
Drew’s pioneering research into blood and plasma storage meant that hundreds of thousands of lives were saved during the Second World War. But during the war, Drew realized he had his own battles to face at home.
Dr. Charles Drew Death
In early 1942, the American Red Cross agreed to the U.S. military’s policy that only White donors could give blood and plasma. Drew resigned as director in protest and returned to Washington, D.C. as a professor and medical director at Freedmen’s Hospital.
In April 1950, Drew and three other physicians were due at a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. They left Washington D.C. shortly after midnight and planned to drive all night. At the time, there were few safe spots for Black motorists to stop.
By 7 a.m., they were driving through North Carolina, and Drew was behind the wheel. The other three physicians were sleeping, and Drew nodded off as well. When the car crashed and rolled, Drew was partially ejected. One passenger was fully ejected and broke his arm. The other two did not have serious injuries.
Other motorists stopped to help, and an ambulance arrived within 15 minutes. Drew was brought to a local hospital with 48 beds, only five reserved for Black patients. The surgeons on duty, however, recognized Drew as the famed scientist who made blood banking possible. Despite their efforts, Dr. Charles Drew died two hours later.
Drew left behind his wife (a former professor at Spelman College) and four children. He also left behind medical advancements that brought blood and plasma banking into a reality that has saved countless lives.