For Black History Month, we celebrate Dr. Charles R. Drew, who was an African American surgeon, medical researcher, and pioneer in the field of blood transfusion and blood storage. Living during a time of extreme racial prejudice, he protested blood donor segregation and campaigned for better treatment of black doctors. His achievements forever changed the face of modern medicine when he created the first large-scale blood banks.
Prior to his innovations, blood could only be stored for a few days because of the rapid breakdown of red blood cells. Dr. Drew discovered how to separate blood into red cells and plasma, and identified how they could be stored for much longer periods.
In 1941, Dr. Drew initiated a national blood program that collected 13 million pints of blood for use by the armed forces. The American Red Cross appointed Dr. Drew as the director of the first Red Cross blood bank, where he established organizational standards, regulated production techniques, and ensured that safety protocols were followed. One of his key innovations was a mobile blood donation station, later known as a “bloodmobile.”
Thanks to his work, soldiers injured in battle during WWII were able to receive lifesaving blood plasma while on the frontlines, which saved countless lives.
Unfortunately, this effort became controversial when the U.S. military refused the blood donated by African Americans, meaning Dr. Drew himself was not eligible to participate in the program. Angered by these attitudes, he resigned from this post in 1942 (this policy remained until 1950).
Dr. Drew moved to Howard University as Chief of Surgery, where he dedicated himself to training black surgeons and campaigning to get them better access and recognition in the medical world.
Tragically, in 1950, Dr. Drew died in a car accident at the age of 45. There are several U.S.schools and medical centers which now carry his name to reflect his love of teaching and learning and to pay tribute to his pioneering medical work.
Blood banks and transfusions continue to be a lifesaving treatment for cancers, serious injuries, and blood disorders. Through his dedication and perseverance in the face of adversity, Dr. Drew has created a lasting legacy, which is why he is considered the “father of the blood bank.” Dr.Drew broke barriers in a racially divided America to become one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.
His efforts and innovations directly led to the blood centers we see today.