Dr. Charles Drew Stamp

Speculation surrounding the death of Dr. Charles R. Drew is steeped in rumor. Drew, a pioneer in blood banks and blood and plasma storage, may have died after being denied a blood transfusion.

In 1950, Drew was brought to a segregated hospital in North Carolina after falling asleep at the wheel while driving to a medical conference with other doctors. But the surgeons at the hospital the renowned scientist admitted and tried to save his life, making rumors of his death false.

Many others in Drew’s time credit him as the inventor of the blood bank. However, he was also a mentor to black physicians, the first black to receive a Ph.D Columbia University and the first director of American Red Cross. He appears on a US postage stamp and has scholarships, schools and medical centers named after him. And his contribution to science changed the world.

What did Charles Drew do?

Drew is born in 1905 in Washington, DC, the oldest of five children. His father was a carpet maker and the family lived modestly. Drew excelled academically and athletically and received a scholarship to Amherst University in Massachusetts, where he ran track and played football.

Drew hoped to attend Howard University for medical school, but was rejected because he needed more English credits. He was accepted to McGill University in Montreal and graduated in 1933 with high honors.

He began his residency at Freedmen’s Hospital, which was affiliated with Howard University, and then won a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study at Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, he researched blood banks and plasma storage. He was a pioneer in the field, and his work would soon prove life-saving.

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What did Charles Drew invent?

In the late 1930s, blood banks and plasma storage were difficult due to their short shelf life. Scientists also struggle with blood coagulation, as usually it only lasts two days in stock. Many scientists believed that learning about blood storage would occur in a clinical setting with a learning-as-you-go approach. Drew had the idea to move the study to a laboratory environment to observe how the blood changes and how it can be better preserved.

Drew approaches to the problem from several angles. He considers how the blood is collected – through an open or closed vessel or under vacuum. Drew then tested different types of anticoagulants and added preservatives. He experimented with the temperature at which blood was stored and even considered whether the shape of the storage container made a difference.

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Blood banking

Drew found out how to separate red blood cells and plasma from whole blood. He also determined how to preserve red blood cells so they could last longer in storage. Together with his mentor, Drew published on the subject and showed other scientists that it was possible to store both blood and plasma.

His discoveries would soon be needed. In the late 1930s, Europe is heading for war and Britain is about to endure The Blitz, eight months of relentless bombing by Nazi Germany. Military officials wanted to increase their blood supply and turned to Drew for help.

In 1940 Drew received a message by a former McGill University professor who was then working on blood and plasma banking in Europe. The professor asked Drew to send 5000 vials of dried plasma as soon as possible. Drew had to decline the request and tell his professor that this kind of delivery didn’t exist anywhere in the world – yet.

Blood for Britain

In 1940 Drew was elected to lead Blood for Britain, a drive to collect, store and send blood and plasma to troops fighting in France. He then oversaw the successful collection, storage and delivery of 14,600 pints of plasma.

The American Red Cross wants Drew to set up the first blood bank in the US within the year. Drew returned to the US and set up a network of collection stations across the country. When the Japanese army attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, plasma was already available to treat bombing victims.

Drew’s pioneering research into blood and plasma storage meant that hundreds of thousands of lives were saved during the Second World War. But during the war, Drew realizes he must face his own battles at home.

Dr. Charles Drew Death

In early 1942, the American Red Cross agreed with the US military policy that only white donors can give blood and plasma. Drew resigned as director in protest and returned to Washington, D.C., as professor and medical director at Freedmen Hospital.

In April 1950, Drew and three other doctors were due to a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. They left Washington just after midnight and planned to drive all night. At the time, there were few safe places for black drivers to stop.

By 7am they were driving across North Carolina and Drew was behind the wheel. The other three doctors were asleep and Drew nodded as well. When the car crashed and overturned, Drew was partially ejected. One passenger was completely ejected and broke his arm. The other two were not seriously injured.

Other drivers stopped to help and an ambulance arrived within 15 minutes. Drew was taken to a local hospital with 48 beds, only five reserved for black patients. However, the surgeons on duty recognized Drew as the famous scientist who made blood banking possible. Despite their efforts, Dr. Charles Drew died two hours later.

Drew backward his wife (a former Spelman College professor) and four children. He also left behind medical advances that made blood and plasma banking a reality that saved countless lives.

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