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Charles Drew

As February marks the annual celebration of Black History Month, it is essential to remember and celebrate the remarkable achievements that African American innovators have made throughout our country’s history. From early inventors such as Lewis Latimer, George Washington Carver, and Granville Woods to modern-day scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs such as Mae C. Jemison and Mark Dean, the black community in America has, for over a century, boasted a number of ground-breaking individuals that have greatly shaped the way we live today and continue to inspire generations of young people to unlock their potential. During the last week of Black History Month Celebrations, we will be exploring the lives and inventions of three of these incredible individuals who were pioneers in their fields. We plan to examine how they overcame adversity to make historic strides in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields while also examining the various products they invented that revolutionized society. In doing so, we hope to not only help create a greater understanding of their accomplishments but also demonstrate the powerful legacy they left behind. Legacies that still shape our world today.



Born on June 3, 1904, Dr. Charles Richard Drew grew up in Washington DC with his father, Richard, a carpet layer and union secretary, his mother, Nora, and younger siblings. The Drews lived in the neighborhood of Foggy Bottom, which was racially integrated and welcoming to the middle-class sector of Washington’s large African American community. Drew attended Dunbar High School, one of the nation’s best college preparatory schools of the day. He was considered bright but not scholastically inclined. In fact, Drew’s early passions centered around sports, at which he excelled, winning multiple awards for athletic achievement. 

After graduating Dunbar in 1922, Drew attended Amherst College in Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship. At college he developed an interest in the medical sciences through biology courses with Otto Glaser. By the time Drew graduated from Amherst in 1926, he had decided that his next step would be medical school though he was initially unable to afford it. To earn enough money to pursue his dream, Drew taught chemistry and biology and served as the first athletic director at Morgan College, an historically black institution (now Morgan State University).

In the pre-Civil Rights United States of the 1920s and 1930s, Drew’s options for medical school training were limited. Most Black medical students were trained at Black institutions such as Howard University, which would not accept Drew because he lacked essential prerequisite courses in the humanities. Harvard, which accepted a few nonwhite students each year, did accept Drew but wanted to defer his matriculation for a year, so he opted to attend McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal—a school well known for advancing its minority students. 



At McGill, Drew began working with John Beattie on research that proved blood transfusions could be used to treat shock, though treatment would be highly restricted until there was a way to safely store and mobilize large quantities of blood. Though unbeknownst to either man at the time, this early research laid the foundation for Drew’s subsequent groundbreaking medical innovations.

Drew’s accomplishments at McGill were numerous. He finished second in his 1933 graduating class, receiving a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree. From there he spent a year as faculty instructor at Howard University and then joined Freeman’s Hospital as an assistant surgeon and surgical instructor. At Columbia University in New York City, Drew’s doctoral thesis was focused on blood preservation, or “banked blood.” During his research Drew discovered that blood plasma had a longer shelf life when de-liquified by separating the cells from liquid blood. Plasma in this state could be reconstituted as needed, for up to two months. This thesis led to his becoming the first African American to become a Doctor of Science in Medicine in 1940. 



Shortly after Drew graduated in 1940, and just before the United States entered Word War II, he was recruited by Dr. John Scudder to set up a prototype blood preservation program for the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association of New York, which had been founded in 1929 with funding by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Through this prototyping Drew discovered the essential processes required for safe plasma extraction, including techniques necessary to avoid contamination. Shortly thereafter, he became the medical director of the “Blood for Britain” project, co-administered by the National Research Council and the American Red Cross. Here, the techniques he pioneered became national best practices for hospitals collecting blood from American donors and preparing it for safe transport to Britain, which was already embroiled in combat. With Drew’s collection and transport innovations, the Blood for Britain program sent over 5,500 vials of uncontaminated blood plasma to Britain, greatly bolstering the allied war effort, and paving the way for modern blood banks—and the mobile collection system that we have come to know as “blood mobiles”—to save millions of lives around the world. 



Dr. Charles Drew became the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank in 1941, leading the effort to provide blood to the US Army and Navy, now fully engaged in World War II. However, the US military ruled that African American blood could not be administered to white soldiers, excluding it  from the plasma supply network. In protest, Drew resigned his post in 1942. Subsequently, he enjoyed a lengthy teaching and research career that rewarded him with innumerable honors, including the Springarn Medal from the NAACP. He also was the first African American surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. However, it is important to note that though Drew had achieved every requisite qualification, he was denied membership in the American Medical Association simply because he was Black. 

Charles Drew died in 1950 from massive injuries sustained during an automobile accident in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he had traveled to attend a clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital. Surviving him was his wife, Minnie, a son, and three daughters, one of whom, Charlene Drew Jarvis, went on to become president of Southeastern University. 



Dr. Charles Drew was an African American who innovated and expanded the reach of modern medicine during an era of strident, unchecked racism. His commitment, integrity, and fearlessness is inspirational. It is impossible to underestimate the profound and universal impact of his work and its far-reaching contribution to what we know today as the Life Sciences. We applaud the courage required for Drew to walk away from his high-profile post with the American Red Cross—and condemn the racism that motivated his decision. Dr. Drew’s life and work continue to influence generations of children and medical students. At last count, more than 10 higher education institutions—including California’s Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science—have named buildings or programs after Dr. Drew, while more than 16 K-12 schools around the nation bear his name and reference his legacy of honor.