When you hear “American Red Cross,” probably one of the first things that comes to mind is “blood donation.” Dr. Charles Drew is one of the reasons for that association. He made foundational contributions in the storage and use of blood plasma.
As a child and young man, Drew seems to have been what today we would call a “scholar-athlete,” although he often seems to have emphasized the “athlete” over the “scholar.” He was a star athlete at both Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C and Amherst College, Massachusetts.
His biology classes in college sparked an interest in medicine; events in his personal life also contributed to this interest. His oldest sister died from tuberculosis and influenza, and he himself was hospitalized for a football injury.
As an African-American born before the Civil Rights era, his options for medical school were limited. He finally enrolled at Canada’s McGill University Faculty of Medicine, where he graduated second in his class of 137.
A key part of his advanced training included writing a dissertation called “Banked Blood.” It was based on his work with an experimental blood bank at New York’s’ Presbyterian Hospital. In 1940, he became the first African American to earn a doctorate in medical science from Columbia University.
World War II was the background for this part of his life, and there was a critical need for blood in Britain. To help meet this need, five New York hospitals were collaborating in the Blood for Britain project to collect and ship blood plasma to Britain. In 1940, Drew became director of the project, standardizing the process of collecting blood and processing blood products at these hospitals.
In 1941, Drew was named assistant director of a pilot program for a national blood banking system. Thus began his association with the American Red Cross, which co-sponsored the program. In that role, he came up with the idea of what we today call “bloodmobiles.”
As in every aspect of life in the United States at that time, racial prejudice hampered this program. At first, African Americans were not permitted to donate blood. Later, their donations were accepted but were segregated, and Drew criticized these racist policies.
In addition to his work with blood plasma, Drew made significant contributions to the medical education of African-American physicians. He served as chair of the Department of Surgery at Howard University and Chief of Surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital. He also fought for the inclusion of African-American physicians in the American Medical Association and other medical societies.
Dr. Charles Drew died as the result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident on April 1, 1950.
Blood donation remains a focus of the work of the American Red Cross. Hurricane Matthew forced the cancellation of many blood drives, so the need for blood and blood products is even greater. Plasma donation is especially important because plasma does not have to be cross –matched, as whole blood does. To donate blood, download the American Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).