Over one hundred million units of blood are donated each year throughout the world, and each donation can save up to 3 lives1. With some simple math, approximately 3 million individuals are saved each year with blood transfusions. The pioneers that have contributed their efforts to perfecting the craft are deserving of our gratitude.
Born on June 3, 1904, in Washington DC, Charles Richard Drew would become known as the father of blood banking. He was born into a middle-class black family, attending elite Dunbar High School, and he studied at Amherst on an athletic scholarship2. After graduating, he became Director of Athletics and an instructor of chemistry and biology at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD2. Shortly after, he pursued a medical career at McGill University School of Medicine, graduated second in his class, and completed his surgical residency in Montreal3. Unfortunately, Dr. Drew lived before the Civil Rights movement and faced harsh discrimination when trying to seek employment as a surgeon in the United States3. He was lucky enough to be extended employment at historically black Howard University School of Medicine in 1935. In 1938, he accepted a surgical fellowship at Columbia University’s Presbyterian Hospital in New York where he did most of his work in blood transfusions4.
In 1947 Dr. Drew and his mentor, Dr. John Scudder, organized a blood bank at Presbyterian Hospital along the lines of the blood banks that were then springing up at the major hospitals in the country. They published a series of 12 related articles in major journals under the heading of “Studies on Blood Preservation” 2,5. At the time there was no standardization of equipment, supplies, containers, or procedures3. Prior to Dr. Drew’s contributions, blood transfusions were done using whole blood with little care or handling procedures. Thus, its use only extended a few days, but he soon discovered that blood with proper handling and separation of plasma, blood could be preserved for weeks 3. Furthermore, his research showed that plasma infusions alone could also be done, widening the treatment scope beyond compatible blood types. He pioneered standardization procedures and preservation techniques, specifically after World War 2 began. During the war, the office of the US Surgeon General and the National Research Council approached Dr. Drew to organize a program with The Red Cross to ship plasma to Britain5. The project was a great success, and Dr. Drew continued to work for The Red Cross for 3 months until resigning due to their policy of refusing, then later segregating, blood from black donors3,4. Appalled by their segregation practices, he returned to Howard University as chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital, where he would continue as faculty and surgeon until his untimely death on March 31, 1950.5
Dr. Drew was a beloved and inspirational teacher publishing important research in the field of blood transfusion, denouncing the racism and unscientific policies of the government, and gaining prestige as the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery and a Fellow of the International College of Surgeons5. On the day of his death, he did what any passionate doctor with a commitment to medicine would do; performing surgery at the crack of dawn, lecturing to his students, spending time with his family, and returning to the hospital at 12AM to conduct rounds, where reports indicated he fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed into a tree5. Unfortunately, his wounds were too great, and Dr. Drew perished.
Dr. Drew was an exceptional educator, researcher, and advocate for science6. Despite the many challenges he faced throughout his career as a physician, he never stopped working towards his passion, and because of his contributions, 3 million lives are saved each year.
1. Myers DJ, Collins RA. Blood Donation. StatPearls. 2022.
2. Gordon RC. Charles R. Drew: surgeon, scientist, and educator. J Invest Surg. Sep-Oct 2005;18(5):223-5. doi:10.1080/08941930500350601
3. Schmidt PJ. Charles Drew, a legend in our time. Transfusion. Feb 1997;37(2):234-6. doi:10.1046/j.1537-2995.1997.37297203530.x
4. Schatzki SC. Dr. Charles Richard Drew. AJR Am J Roentgenol. Dec 1995;165(6):1372. doi:10.2214/ajr.165.6.7484567
5. Tan SY, Merritt C. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950): Father of blood banking. Singapore Med J. Oct 2017;58(10):593-594. doi:10.11622/smedj.2017099
6. Organ CH, Jr. The unfolding legacy of Charles R. Drew. Am J Surg. Jan 1998;175(1):65-8. doi:10.1016/s0002-9610(97)00238-9