If you or a loved one have had your life saved because of a blood transfusion, then you have Dr. Charles Richard Drew to thank, for he founded the modern blood bank.
He was born the oldest of five children on June 3, 1904. His father Richard was a carpet layer and his mother Nora was a school teacher. Young Charles seemed geared towards excellence and became an exceptional athlete and academic student, going on to become one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Amherst College.
Upon graduating from Amherst, Charles made the decision to study medicine, but financial reasons delayed him from being able to go to medical school immediately. To earn money, he took a position as a biology teacher at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland for two years and also served as its athletic director.
Charles finally realized his dream when he enrolled in medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1928 and focused on the area of blood research. He graduated in 1933, receiving a Medical Degree and Master of Surgery Degree. Following this, he served his internship at Montreal General Hospital and Royal Victoria Hospital.
Returning to the United States, Drew became an instructor of pathology at the prestigious Howard University, also serving his residency at Freedmen’s Hospital and later at Columbia University Presbyterian Hospital. It was during this time that he started to do serious research on blood and blood transfusions, advancing to receive a Doctor of Medical Science degree in 1940. His dissertation Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation proved that blood plasma lasted a longer time than whole blood.
When World War II broke out, Dr. Drew was called upon to become a project director for the Red Cross, but he protested when the U.S. War Department demanded that blood from white donors be separated from blood of black donors and that black donors’ blood be refused. He criticized their claims that “black blood” was somehow “inferior” and resigned from his Red Cross position. Despite his brilliance, Dr. Drew also experienced the ugliness of the racism prevalent during that era.
He went back to Howard University in 1942, becoming the Chief of Staff and Medical Director for Freedmen’s Hospital, receiving recognition and a number of honors for his work.
Unfortunately, his great career and life were cut short, when he was involved in a car accident in North Carolina in 1950, after falling asleep at the wheel. Over the years, false stories have spread regarding the circumstances of his demise. Rumors declared that he had died after a white hospital refused to admit him, but this was, in fact, not the case at all. Dr. Drew received excellent care, but his injuries were too serious and he died.
Dr. Charles Drew stands as an example of how excellence can transcend race and he is revered today on the merits of his medical contributions, not simply because he was a black man.