Dr. Charles Drew

The Father of Blood Banks

A picture of Dr. Charles Drew at work.
After receiving first aid treatment in practice raid in Washington, DC, air-raid `victim' is removed to hospital by a Medical Corps of the Office of Civilian Defense. The physician is Dr. Charles Drew. (circa 1941 - 1945). (Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Who Was Charles Drew?

Dr. Charles Drew, a gifted African-American surgeon and teacher, is known as the father of blood banks. It was through intensive research that Drew discovered a method of separating and storing blood plasma, allowing for the creation of blood banks to help in emergencies. With the start of World War II, Drew set up blood banks in both England and the United States, saving countless lives on battlefields -- and millions of lives ever since.

During his short 45-year life, Dr. Charles Drew greatly impacted the field of medicine and accomplished profound successes in a dense field monopolized by whites.

Dates:  June 3, 1904 -- April 1, 1950

Also Known As:  Charlie, Big Red

A Charmed Life

Charles Richard Drew, the eldest of five children born to Richard T. Drew and Nora Burrell Drew, was born on Friday, June 3, 1904, in Washington, D.C. His father was a carpet installer and financial secretary of the Carpet, Linoleum, and Tile Layers' union. His mother received a degree from Miner Normal Teachers' College, but never taught.

Washington was no exception to pervasive segregation. But “Charlie” and his siblings -- Elsie, Joseph, and Nora -- had a loving, middle-class upbringing within an interracial community near the White House and Potomac River. (Elsa, the last sibling, was born after the family moved from Washington.) Because of the dense fog rolling off the river, Charlie Drew's neighborhood was called Foggy Bottom.

Drew and his siblings were expected to get good grades, keep their rooms tidy, and to sew and repair their own clothes. As a surgeon later in life, Charlie often joked that he received surgical training as a child.

The Drew kids were taught that racial prejudice existed, but to not allow discrimination to impede achievement.

The Drew children often played on the White House lawn. On Sundays, the family attended Nineteenth Street Baptist, where Drew’s father Richard was music director.

A Newstand

The country was segregated, but Richard taught his sons how to become avid swimmers at a local blacks-only pool. Charlie Drew, a natural-born athlete, soon swam in the Potomac River. One 4th of July, eight-year-old Drew won four medals during a swim competition.

But there was never any money for extras, even though Richard was hardworking and a good provider. Highly ambitious, 12-year-old Drew set up a newstand for The Evening Star and Washington Times.

The business grew as Charlie hired six neighborhood boys to help make deliveries. The small businessman often sold upwards of 2,000 newspapers a day.

Two years later, Drew became a carrier for the United States Postal Service, and turned his well-established newstand over to his nine-year-old brother, Joe.

Getting the Best Education

Richard and Nora drilled the importance of earning top grades into their children. Washington boasted a top-rated school system for African Americans; Drew graduated from Stevens Elementary in 1918.

Drew began attending Paul Laurence Dunbar High in the fall of 1918.

This facility was the best college-prep school for blacks in the country, known for its excellent curricula. Dunbar's staff was comprised of great scholars and teachers, who inspired the students to be high-achievers.

Although a model student, Drew had to work hard to keep top grades. In addition, he was an exceptional athlete -- becoming a star-player on Dunbar's swimming, basketball, football, baseball, and track teams. Popular Drew spent much of his freshman year partying. That plus focusing on excelling in a variety of sports caused Drew's grades to start slipping.

Other distractions -- sad and tragic -- were on the horizon.

His Sister’s Death

In 1920, Drew was 15 when Elsie, his 12-year-old sister, died of tuberculosis – a slow and painful disease. Later in life, Drew acknowledged that Elsie's death was a deciding factor in his career choice.

Drew's grieving family left the unhealthy climate of Foggy Bottom, thought the probable cause for Elsie's death, and moved to a rural two-story frame house in Arlington, Virginia.

In December 1921, a fifth child, Eva, was born to the Drew household -- a welcome blessing to a distressed family.

This family upheaval had not helped Drew’s grades. However, instead of settling for mediocre, Drew’s parents encouraged him to study harder. It paid off, and Drew was awarded an athletic scholarship to Massachusetts’s Amherst College in 1922.

Amherst - A Different World

Drew entered a nearly all-white environment at Amherst in the fall of 1922. Tall and strongly built, Drew got noticed. Mostly easygoing, Drew turned a bright pink when he got angry -- earning him the nickname “Big Red.”

Drew joined some old Dunbar classmates on campus and pledged the black fraternity Omega Psi Phi.

As in high school, his athletic prowess eclipsed his academic achievements. He broke sprinting and hurdle-jumping records and was the only freshman to get a major letter.

But it was during Drew's years at Amherst that he learned some hard lessons about racism. Although he was undoubtedly the school's best football player, Drew was bypassed for the much-desired position of team captain in favor of a white player.

After students protested, Drew was voted Amherst's track-team captain. However, Drew was to have another unfortunate experience due to his skin color. After a game competing against Rhode Island's Brown University, Amherst's team went for dinner at the Narragansett Hotel.

After the hotel manager stated that he didn't serve “coloreds,” the track-team coach told the four black players to return to Brown's campus to eat. Drew never forgot the humiliation.

A Hospital Visit Becomes Inspiring

Drew's skill with a football brought him not only celebrity, but made him enemies. During a game, an opposing-team's tackler stomped Drew's leg. The metal spikes from the player's shoe dug into Drew's thigh, causing serious injury.

Hospitalized, bored Drew was given the opportunity to accompany a doctor around the hospital. He was intrigued by how doctors worked in emergency situations. This experience, coupled with Drew’s desire to make an impact in medicine so that others, like his sister, would not die needlessly, led Drew to the decision that he wanted to become a doctor.

In 1926, Drew graduated from Amherst with a bachelor's degree and top grades, receiving the Thomas W. Ashley trophy and the Howard Hill Mossman award for his many athletic contributions. But scientific history was about to be turned on its ear by an all-star athlete. 

Got Everything but Money!

Drew was determined to get into medical school but he lacked the funds to apply immediately. To save money, Drew acquired a job in 1926 as a coach at Baltimore's Morgan State College. He also taught chemistry and biology. Working hard, Drew also refereed at football and basketball games.

A great teacher, Drew transformed average football and basketball players into athletic champions. He would draw upon Morgan's coaching experience to later inspire young medical students to exceed expectations.

In 1928, Drew had enough money for medical school and applied to Howard University. Unfortunately, because he lacked only two English credits, Drew was denied entrance into Howard's medical program.

Angry and frustrated, Drew decided to apply to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who didn’t care about those missing units. He was elated when he was accepted in the school's five-year program.

Unlike America, Drew's skin color didn't seem to matter to Canadians. He could go wherever he wanted without fear. Restaurants, public areas and facilities, and supermarkets were open to him. Drew loved this environment and delved into his studies.

Becoming Fascinated With Blood

Dr. John Beattie, Drew’s anatomy professor, came to McGill University from England to do blood research. Dr. Beattie and Drew were five years apart in age and their shared love of sports and blood research made them fast friends. Eventually, they began doing experiments together.

Around 1901, doctors discovered that there were four blood types: A, B, AB, and O. Before the discovery, patients died because they were transfused with an incompatible blood type.

At Montreal's General Hospital, Drew watched Beattie test blood types. Lacking a method to keep blood from going bad, doctors routinely donated fresh blood for serious cases; usually, however, most people died before a match was found.

This problem caused Drew deep concern, as he felt hospitals should have a way to store fresh blood for emergencies. Beattie was also concerned and encouraged Drew to intensify his research.

Freedman’s Hospital - Dr. Drew the Teacher

Upon graduation from McGill in 1933, Drew ranked at the top of his class, receiving both a Doctor of Medicine and a Master of Surgery degree. Drew performed his internship and residency at Montreal General and Royal Victoria Hospitals, where he continued blood-preservation research and perfected his surgical skills.

Drew then applied to teach pathology at Washington D.C.'s Freedmen's Hospital, a part of Howard Medical School. Drew was accepted this time, at a salary of $150 a month. Freedmen's Hospital was ill-equipped and staff-poor but did its best to handle the overwhelming load of black patients that came from all across the country.

Only a few medical schools in America accepted blacks and then it was nearly impossible for them to find a residency after graduation. At Freedmen's, Drew was determined to turn out the best doctors anywhere.

Drew’s First Blood Bank

In 1938, Drew took a leave from Howard; he had been awarded a two-year Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to conduct blood research at New York's Columbia University. With World War II looming, it was crucial that scientists find a way to store blood for blood transfusions. Drew was to work on this research.

To start, Drew studied all the past blood research made by men around the world. This included the groundbreaking research by Karl Landsteiner (who discovered the various blood groups) and the advanced research being conducted by the Russians (transfusions from cadavers among other things). Drew used this information as his base and then conducted his own blood research.

Drew tested blood at various stages of aging to observe cell differences. Then he tested blood using various chemicals to determine which prevented clotting. He created a utensil to separate red blood cells from plasma, the liquid the cells floated in.

As Drew studied plasma, he discovered that plasma contained no red blood cells, so blood types were irrelevant. Plasma could be used to treat anyone, and could be separated and stored for lengthy periods of time. Also, in emergencies, plasma could sustain a dying person until the body could produce blood on its own.

With Drew’s research, a “blood bank” (a term originally coined by Dr. Bernard Fantus in 1937) was established on August 9, 1939 at Columbia. It had the ability to store dry plasma so that it could be shipped anywhere in the world.

Conquest of a Different Kind

In April 1939, Drew was invited by Alabama's Tuskegee Institute to address students during a medical conference. He stopped off in Atlanta to visit college buddy Mercer Cook on the way. Drew's old friend had arranged a blind date.

At dinner, Cook introduced 35-year-old Drew to Minnie Lenore Robbins -- a 26-year-old home economics professor at Spelman College. It was love at first sight for both.

As soon as Drew was done with his conference, he took a train back to Atlanta and proposed to Lenore as soon as he arrived – it was 1 am and he had had to wake up the dormitory’s housemother to do so. A six-month courtship ensued, with Drew penning eloquent love letters in his exquisite handwriting.

The perfectly-matched couple wed on September 23, 1939, and lived modestly in an apartment near Drew's lab. He relaxed by gardening, cooking, and playing the piano.

Lenore soon discovered that her husband's profession was not glamorous and was her rival for his attention. To see her husband on a regular basis, she joined the staff.

Drew and Lenore had four children together. They named their oldest daughter “BeBe,” in homage to “B.B.,” which is short for “blood bank.”

Blood for Britain

Drew was working harder than ever at New York's Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia. In addition to all of his regular duties and research, he was simultaneously writing his 245-page doctoral thesis on blood preservation. The paper became the blueprint for America's future blood banks.

In June 1940, Charles Drew became the first black to receive a Doctor of Science in Medicine. He could have become rich in private practice, but Drew opted instead to be chair of Howard's surgical department and Freedmen's Chief of Surgery.

But in the fall, Germany bombed Great Britain and killed thousands. Drew received an urgent telegram from his former teacher, Dr. Beattie, now the director of England's College of Surgeons. He requested 5,000 pints of dried plasma for transfusions immediately, and the same amount to be sent again within three weeks.

It was a tall order, but Drew knew he wouldn't fail his friend. Drew took another leave from Howard and returned to New York to head the "Blood for Britain" program.

Drew’s biggest problem was getting enough donors. Focusing on New York City, Drew started recruiting donors through newspapers, radio announcements, and posters. To collect the blood, he created mobile blood collection trucks that had mini refrigerators inside to keep the blood fresh.

Within five months, an unprecedented number -- 14,566 people – had given blood. Drew then organized nursing units to sterilize blood, separate the plasma, either freeze or dry it, and ship it to England. The program was successful in saving countless lives.

Establishing Blood Banks in the U.S.

As of January 1941, Britain had set up their own blood collection centers and could thus provide their own blood. However, the time was coming for the United States to enter World War II, which meant that it too needed vast amounts of blood on hand.

To work on this, Drew was named assistant director over the American Red Cross' blood collection efforts. This time, Drew had to think and act in an even larger scale – he was to establish blood banks all across the United States.

However, because of the United States' long-held rules of segregation, Drew was ordered by the War Department to collect blood from only whites. To them, blood collected from blacks was unacceptable.

Although a successful doctor, Drew realized he could never escape the affronts to his dignity and character as a black man in America. He cringed at the affect such ignorance and prejudice would have on his ability to save lives.

Drew appealed to officials, but the military agreed that blacks could donate only on the condition that African-American blood be separated from the blood of whites. 

This too was unacceptable. With the blood-collection effort sufficiently underway, Drew resigned his post with the Red Cross in April 1941 and returned to Howard University. He received his surgeon's certificate also in April from the American Board of Surgery (ABS) and, just months later, became the first black to serve as an examiner on the ABS.

A Job Well Done

Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan on December 7, 1941 -- but there was no shortage of plasma, thanks to Drew.

Drew was satisfied with his life. He had reached his career's apex despite stumbling blocks, and devoted the rest of his life training black medical students to reach theirs.

Drew received many prestigious awards, including the NAACP's Spingarn Medical in 1944. He was accepted to the American-Soviet Committee on Science. In 1946, Drew became a fellow of the International Surgeons.

However, he was barred from an American Medical Association (AMA) membership because the Washington D.C. chapter was segregated. Drew, who had written 21 articles within AMA journals, expressed to the editor the unfairness of discrimination against qualified black doctors. It fell on deaf ears.

A Car Crash Ends a Brilliant Life

On March 31, 1950, Drew performed several surgeries and attended a student banquet at Howard. After napping briefly, Drew prepared for a long drive at 2:15 a.m. with three colleagues to Tuskegee Institute.

Exhausted but dedicated Dr. Drew sat behind the steering wheel. Apparently, he dozed off at about 8 a.m. on April 1, 1950, in Burlington, North Carolina. Drew awoke suddenly and overcorrected, flipping the car three times.

Although the other passengers suffered mostly minor injuries, Drew's body landed under the overturned car. His neck was broken, one leg was nearly severed, and his chest was crushed.

An ambulance arrived and Drew was taken to Alamance General Hospital, where three white doctors worked feverishly to save him. But within a couple of hours, Dr. Charles Drew was dead at the age of 45.

Contrary to a myth still circulating, Drew didn't die because he was denied a blood transfusion at a white hospital. According to Lenore and the doctors who lived, Drew's injuries were impossible to survive.

Dr. Charles Drew’s death shocked the world. Drew left behind a loving wife, four young children (aged 4, 6, 8, and 9), his mother Nora, brother Joe, and sisters Nora and Eva.

Hospitals, research centers, schools, and streets sprang up to honor the great medical pioneer. In 1981, a stamp was issued to acknowledge Drew's legacy in the Great American series.