Charles Drew

Blood Bank

Charles Richard Drew, originator of the concept of a blood bank, was born in Washington, D.C. on June 3, 1904. He received a BA from Amherst College in 1926, where he excelled in both athletics and academics. He went on to earn an MD and a Master of Surgery degree from McGill University Medical School in Montreal in 1933. He became interested in blood research while working with British professor Dr. John Beattie in Montreal, and he pursued this interest as an intern and resident doctor during his two years at Montreal General Hospital.

In 1935, Drew became an instructor in pathology at Howard University College of Medicine. Three years later, he was granted a research fellowship by the Rockefeller Foundation and spent two years at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital (attached to Columbia University) in New York. During this time, he was also supervisor of the blood plasma division of the Blood Transfusion Association of New York City. During the course of his research, he found that by separating the liquid red blood cells from the near solid plasma and freezing the two separately, blood could be preserved and reconstituted at a later date. He published his findings in an article called "Banked Blood," calling the process of collecting and storing blood "banking" it. His system for the storing of blood plasma revolutionized the medical profession and has helped to save countless lives worldwide.

Drew earned his Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia in 1940. He was the first African American to receive this degree. At that time, World War II was just beginning. As many American blood specialists were exploring ways to get blood plasma to the war front, Drew was chosen as medical supervisor of the "Blood for Britain" project, which helped save the lives of many wounded soldiers. His official title for the blood drive was Medical Director of the first Plasma Division for Blood Transfusion.

Following this success, Charles Drew was named director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank and assistant director of the National Research Council and was in charge of blood collection for the U.S. Army and Navy.  As Drew set up the blood bank and trained staff, he also spoke out against the armed forces' directive that blood was to be separated according to the race of the donor. Drew knew this was wrong and that there was no racial difference in blood. Soldiers and sailors would die needlessly if they had to wait for "same race" blood.

Once the program was up and running, Drew resigned (partly in protest to the “same race” directive) to accept a position as Chair of Surgery at Howard University. His work with the plasma project in the U.K. and the American Red Cross’ blood banks provided important models for the widespread system of blood banks in operation today.

Tragically, Drew died in a car accident on April 1, 1950 at just 46 years of age. He was honored with several awards during his lifetime and posthumously. He received the Spingarn Medal in 1944, and after his death, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal from the National Medical Association in 1950. In 1981, a U.S. postage stamp was issued in his honor.