Charles R. Drew

Charles Richard Drew
(3 June 1904 – 1 April 1950) was an African-American physiciansurgeon and medical researcher. He researched in the field of blood transfusions, developing improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge to developing large-scale blood banks early in World War II. This allowed medics to save thousands of lives of the Allied forces.[1] The research and development aspect of his blood storage work is disputed. Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation, an action which cost him his job. In 1943, Drew’s distinction in his profession was recognized when he became the first black surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.

Early years

Drew was born to Richard Y. Drew and Nora Burrell in Washington, DC. He attended Meads Mill Elementary School, and began working as a paperboy selling copies of the Washington Times-Herald while attending school. In 1918, he enrolled at Dunbar High School, a racially segregated high school with a reputation for being one of the strongest academic Black public schools in the country. Drew’s sister Elsie, who was ailing with tuberculosis, died of pandemic influenza in 1920. Her death was said to influence his decision to study medicine.

His athletic achievements helped win him a partial scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Drew became a member ofOmega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. He did graduate work at McGill UniversityMontreal, and Columbia University, New York, where he earned his PhD.

Academic career

Drew became a researcher and general surgeon, teaching and practicing within medical schools and teaching hospitals. He worked and taught at Freedman’s HospitalMorgan State UniversityMontreal General, and Howard University.

Soon after he began his career, in 1943 he was invited as the first black to be an examiner for the American Board of Surgeons.

Blood Plasma for Great Britain Project

In late 1940, during World War II before the US entered the war, and just after earning his doctorate, Drew was recruited by John Scudder to help set up and administer an early prototype program for blood storage and preservation. He was to collect, test, and transport large quantities of blood plasma for distribution in Great Britain.[2] Drew went to New York to direct the United States’ Blood for Britain project. The Blood for Britain project was a project to aid British soldiers and civilians by giving US blood to Great Britain.

Drew created a central location for the blood collection process where donors could go to give blood. He made sure all blood plasma was tested before it was shipped out. He ensured that only skilled personnel handled blood plasma to avoid the possibility of contamination. The Blood for Britain program operated successfully for five months, with total collections of almost 15,000 people donating blood, and with over 5,500 vials of blood plasma.[2] As a result, the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association applauded Drew for his work.

Charles E. Wynes, a biographer of Drew, has disputed the credit he is sometimes given for technical development of blood storage techniques.

“The fact is, Drew did not develop blood plasma in any of its forms, nor did he perfect blood transfusion with blood plasma, as is sometimes claimed in the greater media.” While Wynes noted that Drew’s role was purely an organizational one, that “in no way detracts from Drew’s actual accomplishments.”[3]

Drew had a lengthy research and teaching career. He became a chief surgeon. He was the first black surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.


From 1939, Drew attended the annual free clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in TuskegeeAlabama. For the 1950 Tuskegee clinic, Drew and three other black physicians decided to drive rather than fly. Drew was driving around 8 a.m. on April 1. Still fatigued from spending the night before in the operating theater, Drew lost control of the vehicle. After careening into a field, the car somersaulted three times. The three other physicians suffered minor injuries. Drew was trapped with serious wounds; his foot had become wedged beneath the brake pedal. When reached by emergency technicians, Drew was in shock and barely alive due to severe leg injuries. Drew was taken to Alamance General Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina. He was pronounced dead a half hour after he first received medical attention. Contrary to urban legend, Drew was well treated by the hospital. Claims that he was not treated because of his skin color are unfounded.[4] Drew’s funeral was held on April 5, 1950, at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

A persistent urban legend holds that Drew was denied care—ironically, a blood transfusion—at a nearby hospital because of his race and bled to death. Dr. John Ford, one of the doctors traveling with Drew contradicted this in an interview: “We all received the very best of care. The doctors started treating us immediately. […] He had a superior vena caval syndrome—blood was blocked getting back to his heart from his brain and upper extremities. To give him a transfusion would have killed him sooner. Even the most heroic efforts couldn’t have saved him. I can truthfully say that no efforts were spared in the treatment of Drew, and, contrary to popular myth, the fact that he was a Negro did not in any way limit the care that was given to him.”[5]

Legacy and honors

Numerous schools and health-related facilities, as well as other institutions, have been named in honor of Drew.

Medical and higher education

K-12 schools