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African American Medical Pioneers

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African American Medical Pioneers: Charles Drew (1904-1950)

Charles DrewCharles Richard Drew was a physician, researcher, and surgeon who revolutionized our understanding of blood plasma. During World War II alone, his work allowed blood storage for transfusions that saved many thousands of lives. Drew was born the eldest of five children on June 3, 1904, in Washington, D.C. His father was a carpet installer and his mother was a schoolteacher. Drew, an excellent student and athlete, graduated from Washington's Dunbar High School in 1972. After graduating from Amherst College in 1926, he applied to medical school but, like Vivien Thomas, could not afford the tuition. He taught science at a black college in Baltimore for several years and saved his earnings. In 1929, he started medical school at McGill University in Canada.

Drew's research on blood transfusions followed the discovery that human blood could be categorized into four main types (A, B, AB, O). Drew received his medical degree and Master of Surgery degree at McGill, and completed his residency at Montreal General Hospital. He returned to Washington, D.C. to help care for his family after his father died, and he began teaching at Howard University's medical school. In 1938, he accepted a fellowship to continue his blood research at Columbia University. There, Drew developed a method for processing and storing blood plasma that allowed it to be dehydrated, shipped great distances, and then reconstituted just before transfusions. This was a great breakthrough. Before then, unprocessed blood was very perishable and would become unusable after about a week.

Early in World War II, Drew received an urgent cable from his former professor, Dr. John Beattie, then in Britain. The cable asked Drew to send 5,000 ampules of dried plasma to Britain for wartime transfusions. "Work immediately and follow this by equal quantity in three to four weeks," the cable said. It was a shocking request: there was not that much plasma in the whole world. But Drew took the challenge. By September 1940, he led the "Blood for Britain" project as Nazi Germany's air assault on Britain reached its height.

When "Blood for Britain" succeeded, Drew became director for the blood bank of the American Red Cross. He organized the largest blood drive ever, involving 100,000 donors, for the U.S. Army, and Navy. Drew was infuriated when the military ordered the Red Cross to label the blood with each donor's race and to refuse African American donors. Despite his protests that the policy was unscientific and insulting, the government continued to segregate blood banks. He resigned.

Drew resumed teaching at Howard and became chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital. In 1943, he became the first black surgeon to be an examiner for the American Board of Surgery. He inspired his students and received many awards and honorary degrees. Later, he was elected to the International College of Surgeons, and traveled through post-war Europe to assess hospitals as and advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General. He died in a car accident in March 1950, while driving to a medical meeting at the Tuskegee Institute.

Drew left a legacy of life-saving techniques and teaching. Many of his students also went on to become nationally prominent physicians.

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