Dr. Charles Richard Drew: Father Of Blood Banking And Blood Plasma

February 12, 2023 at 8:32 p.m.


I must admit I knew very little or anything about Dr. Charles Richard Drew until I read about his life as part of Black History Month and a subsequent lecture about him in Great Courses video series.

Even though in the late 1930s, Drew was widely known in medical circles, nationally and internationally, for his pioneering scientific research in blood plasma and blood banking at the beginning of World War II.  According to Spencie Love, in her book “One Blood,” he was credited as the man who had “discovered” blood plasma and saved countless lives by helping set up the World War II blood collection program.  

Despite his pioneering work, the Red Cross’s policy then excluded black donors from the blood program and later of segregating the blood of black and white donors.

Early Life

Drew, the African American surgeon and researcher who organized America's first large-scale blood bank and trained a generation of black physicians at Howard University, was born in Washington, D.C., on June 3, 1904. His father, Richard, was a carpet layer and financial secretary of the Carpet, Linoleum, and Soft-Tile Layers Union – and its only non-white member. His mother, Nora Burrell Drew, was a graduate of the Miner Normal School, though she never worked as a school teacher. Charles and his younger siblings, Joseph, Elsie and Nora, grew up in the largely middle-class and interracial neighborhood of Foggy Bottom (a third sister, Eva, was born after the family moved to Arlington, Va., in 1920.) Their upbringing emphasized academic education and church membership, as well as civic knowledge and personal competence, responsibility and independence.

At the age of 12, Charlie (as he was called, even as an adult) became a paper boy, selling several Washington papers from a street corner stand; within a year, he had six other boys working for him and covering a wider area. As he got older, his after-school and summer jobs included supervising at city playgrounds, lifeguarding at the local swimming pool and working construction jobs.  

Education

His sports talents helped him get a scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. He graduated in 1926, and went on to medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  He earned a degree in surgery, second in his class of 100 students. After that, he went to Columbia University in New York. He became the first African American in history to earn a medical degree and become a doctor from that school.   

Successes After College

Drew taught and continued research in blood transfusions. In 1943, he was selected as chief surgeon on the American Board of Surgery.

Death

On April 1, 1950, Charles Richard Drew died after an auto accident in rural Alamance County, N.C. He was just 45 years old.  Lovie’s book describes what might be called inappropriate treatment after the accident.

Blood Plasma

Plasma is the liquid portion of blood. About 55% of our blood is plasma, and the remaining 45% are red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets that are suspended in the plasma. Plasma is about 92% water. It also contains 7% vital proteins such as albumin, gamma globulin and anti-hemophilic factor, and 1% mineral salts, sugars, fats, hormones and vitamins.  Plasma donations are specifically used to treat over 80 different autoimmune diseases, immunodeficiencies and rare blood disorders.  Whole blood is generally used for blood transfusions.

Blood Supply

How important is our blood supply.  According to the American Red Cross:

• Every 2 seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood and or platelets.

• Approximately 29,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the U.S.

• Nearly 16 million blood components are transfused each year in the U.S.

• Sickle cell disease affects 90,000 to 100,000 people in the U.S. About 1,000 babies are born with the disease each year. Sickle cell patients can require blood transfusions throughout their lives.

• The average red blood cell transfusion is approximately three units.

• A single car accident victim can require as many as 100 units of blood.

• Blood and platelets cannot be manufactured; they can only come from volunteer donors.

• The blood type most often requested by hospitals is type O.

• One donation can help save more than one life.

• According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.8 million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Many of them will need blood, sometimes daily, during their chemotherapy treatment.

Final Thoughts

Dr Drew’s research helped saved countless lives of wounded soldiers during World War II.  His work was responsible for the creation of the American Red Cross Blood Bank. He was thus a hero barely recognized for his historic contributions to medical science. He was, however, later honored on a postage stamp acknowledging him as one of America’s 100 greatest black Americans and one of Washington, D.C., bridges are named after him.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].

I must admit I knew very little or anything about Dr. Charles Richard Drew until I read about his life as part of Black History Month and a subsequent lecture about him in Great Courses video series.

Even though in the late 1930s, Drew was widely known in medical circles, nationally and internationally, for his pioneering scientific research in blood plasma and blood banking at the beginning of World War II.  According to Spencie Love, in her book “One Blood,” he was credited as the man who had “discovered” blood plasma and saved countless lives by helping set up the World War II blood collection program.  

Despite his pioneering work, the Red Cross’s policy then excluded black donors from the blood program and later of segregating the blood of black and white donors.

Early Life

Drew, the African American surgeon and researcher who organized America's first large-scale blood bank and trained a generation of black physicians at Howard University, was born in Washington, D.C., on June 3, 1904. His father, Richard, was a carpet layer and financial secretary of the Carpet, Linoleum, and Soft-Tile Layers Union – and its only non-white member. His mother, Nora Burrell Drew, was a graduate of the Miner Normal School, though she never worked as a school teacher. Charles and his younger siblings, Joseph, Elsie and Nora, grew up in the largely middle-class and interracial neighborhood of Foggy Bottom (a third sister, Eva, was born after the family moved to Arlington, Va., in 1920.) Their upbringing emphasized academic education and church membership, as well as civic knowledge and personal competence, responsibility and independence.

At the age of 12, Charlie (as he was called, even as an adult) became a paper boy, selling several Washington papers from a street corner stand; within a year, he had six other boys working for him and covering a wider area. As he got older, his after-school and summer jobs included supervising at city playgrounds, lifeguarding at the local swimming pool and working construction jobs.  

Education

His sports talents helped him get a scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. He graduated in 1926, and went on to medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  He earned a degree in surgery, second in his class of 100 students. After that, he went to Columbia University in New York. He became the first African American in history to earn a medical degree and become a doctor from that school.   

Successes After College

Drew taught and continued research in blood transfusions. In 1943, he was selected as chief surgeon on the American Board of Surgery.

Death

On April 1, 1950, Charles Richard Drew died after an auto accident in rural Alamance County, N.C. He was just 45 years old.  Lovie’s book describes what might be called inappropriate treatment after the accident.

Blood Plasma

Plasma is the liquid portion of blood. About 55% of our blood is plasma, and the remaining 45% are red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets that are suspended in the plasma. Plasma is about 92% water. It also contains 7% vital proteins such as albumin, gamma globulin and anti-hemophilic factor, and 1% mineral salts, sugars, fats, hormones and vitamins.  Plasma donations are specifically used to treat over 80 different autoimmune diseases, immunodeficiencies and rare blood disorders.  Whole blood is generally used for blood transfusions.

Blood Supply

How important is our blood supply.  According to the American Red Cross:

• Every 2 seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood and or platelets.

• Approximately 29,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the U.S.

• Nearly 16 million blood components are transfused each year in the U.S.

• Sickle cell disease affects 90,000 to 100,000 people in the U.S. About 1,000 babies are born with the disease each year. Sickle cell patients can require blood transfusions throughout their lives.

• The average red blood cell transfusion is approximately three units.

• A single car accident victim can require as many as 100 units of blood.

• Blood and platelets cannot be manufactured; they can only come from volunteer donors.

• The blood type most often requested by hospitals is type O.

• One donation can help save more than one life.

• According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.8 million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Many of them will need blood, sometimes daily, during their chemotherapy treatment.

Final Thoughts

Dr Drew’s research helped saved countless lives of wounded soldiers during World War II.  His work was responsible for the creation of the American Red Cross Blood Bank. He was thus a hero barely recognized for his historic contributions to medical science. He was, however, later honored on a postage stamp acknowledging him as one of America’s 100 greatest black Americans and one of Washington, D.C., bridges are named after him.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].
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