As one of the most important surgeons, educators and innovators of the 20th century, National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Charles Richard Drew pioneered a way to safely store, process and transport blood plasma. His work not only saved lives throughout World War II, but also revolutionized blood plasma storage through the process of blood banking.
Early Life and Education
Born in 1904, Drew was the eldest of five children. From an early age, he proved to be both a gifted student and athlete. While in high school, his sister tragically passed away from tuberculosis, and this inspired Drew to pursue a degree in medicine.
In 1922, his athletic abilities landed him a football and track and field scholarship to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts. Drew was one of only 13 Black students in a student body of 600, and on the field, he experienced a great deal of hostility from opposing teams.
Drew completed his bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in 1926 but lacked the resources to pursue a medical degree. To remedy the situation, he began working as a biology instructor and coach for Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore for two years before enrolling at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
At McGill, Drew immediately distinguished himself, winning the J. Francis Williams Prize in Medicine and the annual scholarship prize in neuroanatomy, working on the McGill Medical Journal and being elected to the medical honor society Alpha Omega Alpha. He completed his medical and master of surgery degrees in 1933.
Blood Plasma Preservation
Following his graduation, Drew began his internship and residency at both the Royal Victoria Hospital and Montreal General Hospital. He studied under John Beattie, examining issues related to blood transfusions, or the process of transferring blood through an intravenous line (IV). He would continue his research in this area, and after earning a Rockefeller fellowship, began pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University, where he worked with a physician named John Scudder. Together, the two conducted extensive research in blood preservation and fluid replacement. Their work culminated in the development of a trial blood bank, which they successfully ran for seven months. Drew’s 1940 doctoral thesis, “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation,” cemented his status as an expert in this developing field.
Drew’s breakthroughs in blood preservation could not have come at a better time, as World War II was already ongoing in Europe, and Great Britain needed large amounts of blood and plasma to treat its wounded soldiers. Using the experimental blood bank they had just tested as a blueprint, Drew and Scudder spearheaded the “Blood for Britain” program to ship plasma overseas.
The decision to transport plasma was an intentional one. Blood contains two primary components, red blood cells and plasma. The job of the former is to carry oxygen throughout the body, and the latter is primarily water mixed with proteins and electrolytes. While it does not contain red blood cells, plasma is effective in helping replace essential fluids and treating shock, two functions essential to saving lives. Additionally, plasma on its own is easier to preserve and transport, and it can be used with any blood type.
Under Drew’s leadership, his team developed novel ways to extract, preserve and ship plasma on a large scale, shipping 5,000 lifesaving liters of plasma to England.
An Enduring Inspiration
Following the success of the “Blood for Britain” program, Drew was appointed assistant director for a national blood banking system sponsored by the American Red Cross and the National Research Council. During this time, he created several mobile blood donation stations, which would later be known as bloodmobiles. However, just as the United States entered the war, the armed forces enacted a baffling policy preventing Black people from donating blood. This misguided decision led to Drew’s resignation from the National Blood Bank in April 1941.
Though he did not make a public statement at the time of his resignation, in 1944 he wrote a letter to the director of the federal Labor Standards Association regarding the segregation of blood by the National Blood Bank.
“I think the Army made a grievous mistake, a stupid error in first issuing an order to the effect that blood for the Army should not be received from Negroes,” said Drew. “It was a bad mistake for 3 reasons: (1) No official department of the Federal Government should willfully humiliate its citizens; (2) There is no scientific basis for the order; and (3) They need the blood.”
Following his departure from the National Blood Bank, Drew focused his efforts on training and mentoring his surgical residents and medical students at Howard Medical School. According to the National World War II Museum, he often paid out of pocket for his students to attend conferences and present their research.
Tragically, on April 1, 1950, Drew was involved in a serious car accident while on the way to a clinical conference and passed away due to serious injuries. His legacy continues through those he inspired, including his daughter, Charlene Drew Jarvis, a doctoral fellow and research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health.
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