These days, we take blood banks, where blood plasma is routinely stored, pretty much for granted, but it wasn’t until nearly the mid-20th century that blood banks were established, thanks in large part, to the work of Dr. Charles R. Drew, an African-American pioneer in blood research.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1904, the eldest son of a carpet layer, Drew first excelled in athletics, winning medals for swimming, basketball and football. After graduating from high school, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship, distinguishing himself on the track and football teams.
While he aspired to a medical education, Drew lacked funds, and worked for two years as a biology instructor and coach at what is now Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Having saved enough money, Drew was accepted at McGill University College of Medicine in Montreal, Canada, where he soon established himself as an honor student and earned both an M.D. and a Master of Surgery degree, graduating second in his class. He interned and completed his residency at Royal Victoria Hospital and Montreal General Hospital, meeting Dr. John Beattie, who became one of his mentors in the field of blood transfusion research.
Back in the United States, Drew aspired to work on transfusion therapy at the Mayo Clinic, but because of racial prejudice, he could not gain a position. Instead, he became an instructor at the Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C. in 1935. The following year, in addition to his continuing work at Howard, he completed a surgical residency at Washington’s Freedmen’s Hospital.
Drew continued his studies at Columbia University and, while working on his doctorate, won a fellowship to train at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Working with John Scudder, who had a grant to establish an experimental blood bank, Drew worked on research in diagnosing and controlling shock, fluid balance, blood chemistry, preservation and transfusion. His thesis, “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation”, made him the first African-American to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia.
While working with Scudder, Drew developed a breakthrough method of processing and preserving blood plasma, which could be stored much longer than whole blood. He discovered that blood plasma could be dried and reconstituted as needed.
At the height of World War II, when blood was desperately needed, Drew was appointed to head up a project called Blood For Britain. Teaming with Scudder and E.H.L. Corwin, Drew used his methods to collect, process and store large amounts of plasma for shipment to war-torn Britain. During that time, he also passed the American Board of Surgery exams. By the time the program concluded in 1941, Blood for Britain had collected more than 14,500 blood donations and, through the Red Cross, shipped 5,000 liters of plasma.
An outgrowth of the program was the establishment of a blood bank in New York in 1940. There is some dispute as to whether this was the first blood bank ever established (some claim the first was established in Moscow in 1938; others claim a centralized blood storage center in Chicago in 1937 had that distinction). In any case, Drew certainly was among the pioneers. Another of Drew’s innovations was the first bloodmobile, a mobile system for collecting and storing blood.
Drew briefly served as a project director for the American Red Cross, but soon resigned, incensed when the War Department issued a directive segregating blood from white and African-American donors, a directive that was later repealed.
Drew died at the young age of 46, after sustaining severe injuries when a car he was driving in Burlington, N.C., crashed.
Drew’s legacy of research in methods of isolating and storing blood plasma that has saved countless lives over the years made him a true pioneer in blood research.
By Frank Kourt, Staff Writer