Charles Drew and his wife, Lenore, outdoors with their children, circa 1949-1950. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine
By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Pioneering surgeon Dr. Charles Drew revolutionized the way the medical community stored blood products during World War II. His was an innovation that lives on today.
Drew, an African American researcher, was born in Washington, D.C., in 1904. Often referred to as the “Father of Blood Banks,” Drew developed ways to process and store blood plasma in what we now call blood banks.
During his early years, Drew was a standout athlete, competing in football, basketball, track and swimming. Drew studied at Amherst College, but a shortage of money kept him from attending medical school. He began working as a biology instructor in Baltimore before finally enrolling in medical school.
Drew began to focus his work on preserving blood. He realized blood plasma could be stored longer than regular blood, thus leading to his “blood bank” idea.
Video by Navy MC2 (SW) James Bleyle
He organized efforts to store plasma during World War II, which saved an untold number of lives. Drew would later lead the charge for blood banking for the American Red Cross and would go on to publicly denounce the decision to segregate blood based on the race of the donor.
“It is fundamentally wrong for any great nation to willfully discriminate against such a large group of its people. One can say quite truthfully that on the battlefields nobody is very interested in where the plasma comes from when they are hurt. It is unfortunate that such a worthwhile and scientific bit of work should have been hampered by such stupidity,” Drew noted as he received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Spingarn Medal in 1944. The NAACP awards the Spingarn Medal annually for outstanding achievement by an African American. The award, a gold medal, was created in 1914 by the NAACP’s chairman of the board, Joel Elias Spingarn.
It’s believed the Red Cross’ decision to segregate the plasma bank led Drew to resign his position.
He would go on to teach at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but died in a vehicle crash in North Carolina in 1950 at just 45 years old.
Today, Drew’s legacy continues. In 1981, he was recognized with a U.S. postage stamp, and in 2010 the Navy named a Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship in Drew’s honor.
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