Charles Drew

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Even before Winston Churchill coined the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Great Britain, this unsung hero of medicine established blood ties between the two countries.

Charles Drew was born in Washington D.C. in 1904. An African American, Charles was raised in a segregated city where black people had few opportunities for economic advancement. Yet Charles had one advantage: he was gifted at sports. By winning medals as a swimmer, Charles gained entrance into Dunbar High School, the only black school in the District of Columbia that paid its teachers as well as their white counterparts.

His athletic skill went on to earn him a scholarship to New England's prestigious Amherst College, where Charles was indeed a star – of both the track and American football teams. But sports was not Charles' only talent. He also dreamed of becoming a medical doctor.

Most US medical schools in the 1920s, however, still blocked access to black applicants. So Charles picked up stakes and moved to Montreal, Canada where he took up residence at the medical program at McGill University. He quickly became one of the top students at McGill and at the age of 29 he earned a doctorate in medicine.

It was now the 1930s. Doctors had discovered how to successfully transfuse the blood of one person into the body of another. In cases of extreme blood loss, it was a life-saving procedure. Yet no one had figured out how to store fresh blood where it was most needed: on the battlefield. Blood loses its integrity -- and therefore its utility -- soon after it leaves human body at which point it congeals and begins to clot. Until someone discovered a way to store blood in a way that kept it fresh and made it transportable, the transfusion procedure would remain ineffective to those who might need it most.

 Charles Drew (back) as the physician for an air-raid victim,  ca. 1941 - ca. 1945 Source:  U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Charles Drew (back) as the physician for an air-raid victim, ca. 1941 - ca. 1945Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Drew rolled up his sleeves, determined to solve this problem. He knew that blood could be separated into its component parts. And after years of experiments, he found that the plasma – the biggest and most crucial component of human blood – could be dried without deterioration and stored for long periods before being used. He began to envision a new kind of bank: one stockpiled with dried plasma organized by blood type that could be shipped and used on an immediate basis. In 1938, Drew began second doctorate at Columbia University in NY. Within the pages of his 1940 dissertation, the idea of the "blood bank" took form.

Drews' timing was impeccable. In September of 1939, the Second World War erupted in Europe. The need for blood transfusions skyrocketed with the untold numbers of wounded that brutal war wrought. British doctors contacted Charles, asking for 5,000 units of stored plasma to send to the aid of fallen soldiers at the front. Tens of thousands of British lives suddenly depended on Drew’s blood bank. There was only one problem: that was more plasma than currently existed in the entire world. 

With the help of the American Red Cross, Drew launched the “Blood for Britain” program. The goal? To collect blood donations from healthy US volunteers and ship the blood plasma to England.

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Besides providing vital short-term aid to England, Drew’s nationwide blood-banking program established a culture of giving blood for the benefit of medical use and research that continues to exist today. Once Britain’s need for blood was satisfied, Drew and the American Red Cross carried on banking blood in the event the US fell into armed conflict with Germany and Japan. Thus, before US ships began ferrying large-scale military aid to Britain, Charles’ discoveries were not only helping to save lives but to sustain the resistance to Hitler.

When the US did enter the war in 1941, Drew’s campaign had already collected plasma from approximately 100,000 volunteers. However, the United States Army refused to allow black soldiers to receive plasma or to donate blood out of fear it would be perceived as a form of racial mixing. Drew protested the naked racism of this policy. In 1942, the Army decided to allow black soldiers to receive transfusions, but only from blood donated by African Americans. US blood at the front, like its citizens at home, would be strictly segregated by race, delaying life-saving procedures and leading to shortages of plasma for black troops.

Disgusted, Drew resigned his posts and returned to private practice. He would never again work for the government.

For the next eight years, Charles Drew worked as a teacher at Howard University. He traveled widely, helping assess hospitals in postwar Europe and continuing his research on banking blood plasma. In 1950, Charles was killed in a car accident while on his way to speak at Tuskegee University in Alabama, an institute of higher learning founded by the famous black American, Booker T. Washington. Drew was only 45 years old.

Later the same year Drew died, the American Red Cross ended its policy of segregating blood, allowing for the creation of a national blood bank organized only on the basis of blood type not the color of the skin from which it was drawn. Few Americans could claim to have had a greater impact on the battle against Hitler, as well as that against racism, than Charles Drew. For these reasons, we are honored to claim him as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero this Black History Month 2018.

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