Charles Richard Drew

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Charles Richard Drew 1904-1950

Scientist, surgeon

An Athlete Kicks Off

Toiling Toward a Goal

A Career in Medicine

The Very Highest Reaches

Plasma Research: Blood for Britain

Glass Ceilings


On a stretch of Route 49, a state highway that runs through North Carolina, stands a tall rectangular marker inscribed in memory of Dr. Charles Richard Drew, a pioneer in American medicine. The monument is one of several memorials to him. Another is a portrait that hangs in the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Public schools, a park, and a medical school bear his name. There is also a Charles R. Drew Blood Center at the Red Cross Building in Washington, D.C.

At the age of 45 in 1950, Drew was in his prime. He was chief of surgery at Freedmens Hospital in Washington, D.C., and professor of surgery at Howard University College of Medicine; he had penned nearly two dozen medical articles and had written a thesis that brought him international recognition as an expert on blood transfusion and storage; he had also been awarded the prestigious Spingam Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At the time of his death from injuries sustained in an automobile accidentwhich occurred on Route 49 on the very spot where the marker standsDrew had earned a reputation for distinction and innovation in the medical field and was training young African American surgeons to the highest standard of professional excellence.

An Athlete Kicks Off

Drew was born into a middle-class family that valued self-reliance, resourcefulness, and an honest days work. The eldest of five children, young Charles learned these lessons well. By the age of 12 he was supplementing his fathers modest carpet layers salary by working as a newspaper salesman. One year later, showing an early knack for leadership, he had six other youngsters working for him.

In 1918 Drew entered Dunbar High School. Long recognized as the nations top educational facility for students of color, Dunbar was famous for its disciplined atmosphere and rigorous curriculum, which balanced academics with sports. Drew excelled in both areas, earning varsity letters in four different sports, two James E. Walker medals for athletic performance, and an athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Drews years at Amherst provided his first experience of life away from home. Removed from the structured

At a Glance

Born June 3, 1904, in Washington, DC; died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident, April 1, 1950; son of Richard Thomas (a carpet layer) and Nora Rosell a (Burrell) Drew; married Minnie Lenore Robbins, September 23, 1939; children: 8ebe Roberta, Charlene Rosella, Rhea Sylvia, Charles Richard, Jr. Education: Amherst College, 8.A., 1926: McCill University, Montreal, Canada, M.D. and master of surgery, 1933: Columbia University, Sc.D. in medicine, 1940.

Athletics director and teacher of biology, Morgan State College, Baltimore, MD, 1926-28; intern, then resident, Montreal General Hospital, 1934-35; Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, DC, instructor in pathology, beginning 1935, professor of surgery, 1941-50; surgical resident, Freedmens Hospital, Washington, DC, 1936, and Presbyterian Hospital, New York City, 1938; medical director of the Blood for Britain project, 1940. and director of the first American Red Cross blood bank, 1941; certified as diplomate of the American Board of Surgery, 1941, later named board examiner; Freedmens Hospital, chief surgeon, 1941-50, chief of staff, 1944-46, medical director, 1946-50; surgical consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General, 1949; author of articles for professional journals.

Member: American-Soviet Committee on Science, National Medical Association, National Association for Crippled Children, National Poliomyelitis Foundation, American Cancer Society.

Awards: Howard Hill Mossman Trophy, 1926; Rosenwald, Williams, and Rockefeller fellowships in medicine during 1930s; E. S. Jones Award for research in medical science, 1942; Spingam Medal from the NAACP, 1944; commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in Drews memory, 1981; several honorary degrees.

environment of Dunbar High, the freshman spent so much time socializing and focusing on sportshe was track team captain and star halfback on the schools football teamthat his grades began to slip. Hamilton

Bims noted in an article for Ebony that Drew was summoned to the deans office for a pep talk about the relative importance of brain and brawn when career choices were being made. The uncomfortable interview ended with a subtle reminder to think carefully about his future. Mr. Drew, the dean reportedly stated, Negro athletes are a dime a dozen. Good day. Drews grades did not slip again. He had decided to become a doctor and did not dare risk rejection from medical schools by placing too much emphasis on sports. Still, he managed to graduate with both scholastic and athletic honors in 1926.

Toiling Toward a Goal

Yet it was Drews flair for sports that opened the door to his chosen future. With four younger children to educate, Drews father was unable to help him financially after graduation from Amherst. In order to save money for medical school, young Charles worked as the athletics director of Morgan State College in Baltimore, leading mediocre athletes to heights they had never before achieved. The experience taught him that he was capable of inspiring students to their utmost efforta skill he would later sharpen when he began to train surgical residents.

By 1928 Drew had augmented his Morgan State salary with a job as a lifeguard plus part-time biology and chemistry teaching posts; soon he had just enough money to pay his tuition fees. Determined to make his savings stretch as far as possible, he applied to Howard University in Washington, D.C., so that he could live at home and commute to classes. But Howard rejected him because he lacked two necessary English credits. Drew was shaken, but remained adamant in his goals, as his brother Joseph told biographer Charles E. Wynes in 1983. Someday, he is reported to have vowed, Ill come back here and run this damned place! Drew was later accepted to McGill University in Montreal.

A Career in Medicine

Despite a heavy academic schedule, Drew somehow found time to join the college football team and even became a nationally acclaimed hurdler. Still, his small savings was barely enough to cover his living expenses. Too proud to let his friends foot the bill for after-hours parties, Drew spent many evenings alone; he was frugal with the little money he did have, buying only necessities and eating the most inexpensive food available. A loan from Amherst eased his financial problems a bit; so did a job waiting on tables. Still, he was much relieved to win a Rosenwald fellowship for $1,000 in the fall of his junior year, plus the Williams Prize for excellence in scholarship one year later.

Drew earned his medical degree in 1933 and stayed in Montreal until 1935 to complete his internship and residency. Then, news of his fathers death brought him back to Washington, D.C., where he reluctantly accepted the unenviable post of pathology instructor at Howard University. Drews supervisor at Howard, Dr. Edward Lee Howes, had recently signed a five-year contract to head the universitys Department of Surgery. Howes had been appointed specifically to train upcoming black surgeons, who could benefit considerably by his own experiences at Yale and Columbia universities, his postgraduate studies in Europe, and his valuable network of contacts. An uncompromising stickler for excellence, Howes was selected surgical department head by Howards dean on the clear understanding that he would be succeeded by his most promising student.

Drews intelligence and organization skills made an immediate impression on Howes, who suggested that he aim for a doctor of science degree and advanced surgical training at Columbia University in New Yorksomething never before done by an African American student. Howes also arranged for a two-year Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for Drew.

This was a golden opportunity to quash the ludicrous, stereotypical notion of intellectual inferiority among people of color. In Charles Richard Drew, Wynes quoted from a letter Drew had written to his future wife, Lenore Robbins: Its much more than a degree Im after, he explained. There are those in high places who feel that Negroes have not yet reached intellectual levels which will permit their attempting the very highest reaches.

The Very Highest Reaches

At Columbia, Drews assigned research topicsblood transfusion and chemistrywere subjects that had interested him since his medical school days. He gave his dissertation the simple title Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation and eagerly tackled the mammoth task it represented, while juggling the responsibilities of a spot in the residency program. Drew conducted his research at New Yorks Presbyterian Hospital, an affiliate of Columbias School of Medicine. Despite the heavy workload, he prepared a meticulous and authoritative study prefaced with an introduction tracing the history of blood transfusions all the way back to the first documented experiment in seventeenth-century France. It was a back-breaking effort, but it fulfilled his basic goal of forging medical advancements throughout the world.

By the time Drew graduated from Columbia in 1940, Hitlers Luftwaffe (or German air force) was raining bombs upon England, and the massive number of casualties was soaring. There was a desperate need for blood in quantities so large that the British Army Blood Transfusion Service had to turn to the United States for help.

Understanding the urgency of the situation, the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association, a division of the New York Academy of Medicine, immediately established a Blood for Britain program in association with the American Red Cross. The two organizations worked smoothly together: the Red Cross collected the blood from donors while the Association supplied technical expertise, plus $15,000 as a start-up fund from its treasury.

Plasma Research: Blood for Britain

With logistics firmly in place, the Blood for Britain participants turned their thoughts to the form of blood that would be fastest and easiest to send overseas. Whole blood, usually the prime pick for transfusions, was now a second-best choice, since its month-long shelf life could only be extended by proper freezing and storage in a blood bank. And blood banks, requiring sterile conditions and precisely calculated refrigeration, were next to impossible to set up on the battlefield.

The answer to the transfusion dilemma lay in the use of plasma, the straw-yellow fluid that remains after the cells in blood have been removed by centrifuging. Plasma offered several advantages besides a longer shelf life: it was much cheaper to handle than whole blood; it could be used for people of all blood types (A, B, AB, and O); and it seldom produced serious reactions in patients.

On August 9, 1940, the first air shipment of blood plasma left for England via the Portuguese Embassy in Lisbon. A second load followed immediately but could not be used; the plasma it contained had a cloudy appearance, suggesting that either the donors had eaten too heavily just prior to giving blood, or the plasma had become contaminated after it was drawn. The Blood Transfusion Betterment Association decided to appoint a project supervisor to investigate and standardize the process of blood collection and storage. No one was better qualified to take the helm than Charles Richard Drew.

An enduring myth credits Drew with the development of the blood plasma used on the battlefields during World War II. He would have been the first to deny this claim. In a paper called Newer Knowledge of Blood Transfusions, published in the Bulletin of the New York

Academy of Medicine in May of 1941, he specifically mentions the pioneering work of Henry Bowditch, a physiologist who was aware of plasmas potential as early as 1871. The same article also pays tribute to an English physician named Ward, who suggested the use of plasma for battlefield transfusions during World War I.

Still, Drew and several other researchers worked to refine liquid plasma preservation techniques. Having obtained a four-month leave from Howard University in September of 1940, he got off to a brisk start, instituting a system of rigorous processing in a central laboratory so that the sterility of all donated blood could be controlled. Drew later relieved the community hospitals of their constant donor traffic by introducing the idea of a refrigerated mobile blood bank.

By January of 1941, the combined efforts of the American Red Cross and the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association had helped Britain to amass an ample supply of plasma. The Blood for Britain project was over, but Drews task was not. With U.S. involvement in the war looming closer, he was still badly needed in New York. Obligingly, Howard granted him a three-month extension on his leave of absence.

As had been the case with Blood for Britain, the segregation of blood taken from African American donors was, at that time, considered an important issue. Segregation in the ranks was rigidly practiced by the American military, and in 1941 the Red Cross was instructed to accept only the blood of white donors for use in transfusions among members of the American armed forces. It is interesting to note that black soldiers were fighting just as valiantly as their white counterparts for democracy. Also intriguing is that Drew himself, a distinguished African American physician and the director of the blood donor project, would have been unacceptable as a donor under these conditions.

Drew met the decision of the military with his usual calm. Later, in January of 1942, blood from black donors was deemed worthy of acceptance for the armed forces, though only on a segregated basis. Drews response to this outrageous practice was published in the Chicago Defender: Only extensive education and an increasing fight on our part to disseminate the scientific facts and raise our levels of achievement can overcome this prejudice which is founded on ignorance.

In April of 1941, a month before his leave of absence was up, Drew left New York to return home to Howard. Some sources claim that the segregation requirements caused him to leave early. But a more likely reason, according to Louis Haber in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, is the fact that he had previously targeted the spring of41 as the date for taking certification examinations required by the American Board of Surgery.

Glass Ceilings

Charles Drews ascent up the academic ladder was slow. He had been at Howard for about six years before being named professor of surgery in 1941. Still, he wanted the countrys first black surgeons to stand proudly among Americas best, so he set unbending standards for study, personal hygiene, and even acceptable forms of recreation among his students.

Despite his unchallenged brilliance on several fronts, the last years of Drews life contained some tragic paradoxes. Welcomed as a member of the American-Soviet Committee on Science, he was denied membership in the American College of Surgeons. And although he served as chief of staff at Freedmens Hospital, as well as professor of surgery at Howard, he was effectively barred from membership in the American Medical Association (AMA).

An old AMA ruling giving membership jurisdiction to county chapters was the obstacle, since it allowed discriminatory pressure groups to control their chapters without restriction. Since Drew was an academic leader and his patients were all admitted to Freedmens Hospital, a black institution, this did not constitute a serious problem for him. Nevertheless, in 1947, he came to the defense of other black physicians in practice; their lack of AMA membership prevented them from admitting patients to predominantly white hospitals, denied them official opinions about nationwide medical policies, and curbed their knowledge of new researchall issues that sent many of their patients rushing to white physicians who were less entangled in race-related red tape.

Destiny decreed that these matters of racial politics would not be solved during Drews short lifetime. They were still pending on April 1, 1950, when he and three other doctors drove out of Washington at about 2:15 a.m., bound for a free clinic for impoverished patients in Tuskegee, Alabama. Drew had spent the previous day in surgery and had only a couple of hoursrest before setting out in the early morning darkness. He was driving toward the North Carolina town of Haw River just before 8:00 a.m., and evidence suggests that he may have fallen asleep at the wheel for a moment. The automobile crashed. Although his three passengers escaped the accident with only superficial injuries, Drew was not so lucky. The car had flipped over and trapped him, breaking his neck and crushing his chest so tightly that all blood flow to his heart was cut off.

A highway marker was erected at the site of the accident in 1986 to commemorate Drews achievements in medicine. As Dr. Charles Watts, a Drew disciple interviewed by Wynes, put it: He helped prepare a whole new generation of surgeons, and a whole new thrust in training.



Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt, 1970, pp. 219-44.

Page, Jake, Blood: The River of Life, U.S. News Books, 1981.

Salley, Columbus, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Wynes, Charles E., Charles Richard Drew: The Man and the Myth, University of Illinois Press, 1988.


Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, January 1941, p. 27; May 1941, p. 380.

Chicago Defender, September 26, 1942.

Ebony, February 1974, p. 88.

Hygeia, February 1941, p. 107.

Journal of the National Medical Association, July 1950.

Negro History Bulletin, July 1950, p. 348; November 1973, p. 144.

New York Times, March 31, 1944, p. 23; April 2, 1950, p. 76.

Washington Post, October 14, 1976, District Weekly section, p. 1.

Gillian Wolf

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Drew, Charles Richard

December 6, 1904
April 1, 1950

The surgeon Charles Richard Drew was born and raised in Washington, D.C., graduating from Dunbar High School in 1922. In 1926 he received a B.A. from Amherst College. Drew was a first-rate basketball player, and upon graduation he was given an award as best athlete of the college. Between 1926 and 1928 he taught biology and chemistry at Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore, where he also served as football coach and as director of athletics.

In 1928 Drew began medical studies at McGill University Medical School in Montreal, Canada. He excelled in medical science courses; won the annual prize in neuroanatomy; was elected to Alpha Phi Omega, the medical honorary scholastic fraternity; and received a prize for the top score in a medical exam competition. In 1933 Drew earned an M.D. and a Master of Surgery degree. He spent the next two years as an intern and a resident in medicine at Royal Victoria and Montreal General Hospitals.

As a McGill medical student, Drew was introduced to research on the chemical composition of blood and blood groups by John Beattie, a British medical researcher. A major problem then facing medical science was that quantities of whole, fresh blood large enough to match blood group types between blood donor and blood receiver were not readily available. Drew was bothered by the deaths of seriously ill or injured patients due to blood loss. Learning more about blood and how to preserve it over long periods of time became a research interest that Drew carried with him when he left Montreal to assume a teaching position at Howard University's College of Medicine in 1935.

In 1938 Drew received a research fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation for study at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. He and John Scudder undertook research that led to the finding that it was blood plasma (the liquid portion of the blood, devoid of blood cells), rather than whole blood, that needed to be preserved for transfusions. Drew established an experimental blood bank at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. In 1940 he was awarded a doctorate at Columbia University with a thesis on "Banked Blood."

Returning to Howard University in 1940, Drew devoted himself to training medical students in surgery. His teaching was abruptly interrupted, however, by a call for blood plasma needed by wounded soldiers on the battle-fields of Europe during World War II. The Blood Transfusion Association in New York City asked Drew to help. He was given leave from his instructional duties at Howard University to accept an assignment in the fall of 1940 as medical director of the Blood for Britain Program, which supplied blood for the British Red Cross. Under Drew's guidance, dried plasma was flown across the Atlantic Ocean to England. Once England had established its own banks, a larger blood program for U.S. military forces was developed. The American Red Cross and the Blood Transfusion Association jointly conducted this program, and Drew became its medical director.

In 1941 the military established a system of refusing blood donations from nonwhites to be used by whites. Blood donated by blacks was stored separately and given only to blacks. As director of the Red Cross Blood Bank Program, Drew took a strong stand against the racial separation of banked blood. As a result, he was asked to resign his directorship position, which he did. He then returned to teaching surgery at Howard University, where he became professor and head of the department of surgery, as well as surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen's Hospital.

On March 31, 1950, after working a long day that included performing several operations, Drew agreed to drive with other colleagues to a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. He dozed at the wheel, and the car went off the road near Burlington, North Carolina, and overturned. Though stories abound that his medical emergency was ignored because of his race, he received prompt medical attention. He died from injuries resulting from the accident.

Drew gained much recognition during his lifetime. He was named Diplomate of Surgery by the American Board of Surgery in 1941; was a recipient of the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1944; was granted honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Virginia State College (1945) and Amherst College (1947); and was elected as a Fellow of the International College of Surgery (1946).

See also Howard University; Science


Cobb, W. Montague. "Charles Richard Drew, M.D., 1904-1950." Journal of the National Medical Association, 42 (July 1950): 239245.

Wynes, Charles E. Charles Richard Drew: The Man and the Myth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

robert c. hayden (1996)

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Charles Richard Drew

African American surgeon Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950) pioneered in developing the blood bank and was an outstanding leader in the training of surgeons.

Charles R. Drew was born in Washington, D.C., on June 3, 1904, the eldest of five children. The close-knit family lived in modest circumstances and was highly respected.

Drew was educated in the Washington public schools. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Amherst College (1926) and his doctor of medicine and master of surgery degrees from McGill University in Canada (1933). Having decided upon a career in surgery, he went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1935. After the next year as a surgical resident, he was sent by Howard for 2 years of advanced study under a General Education Board fellowship to Columbia University, which awarded him the doctor of medical science degree (1940).

At Columbia, under the direction of John Scudder, Drew completed his pioneering and definitive thesis Banked Blood (1940). The Blood Transfusion Betterment Association in New York funded various programs of research; one of these, on blood plasma, was conducted by Scudder and Drew. In 1940, during World War II, Scudder suggested that the association ship dried plasma to France and England. The association appointed Drew director of its "Blood for Britain" project in September 1940.

In 1941 Drew was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Bank and assistant director of blood procurement for the National Research Council, in charge of blood for use by the U.S. Army and Navy. He criticized the policy of segregating blood racially as having no scientific basis.

In October 1941 Drew returned to Howard as head of the department of surgery and was made an examiner for the American Board of Surgery. Chief of staff of Freedmen's Hospital from 1944 to 1946, he was appointed medical director of the hospital for 1946-1947. At Howard, Drew firmly established a progressive modern surgery program. He was a dynamic and inspirational teacher. While he was still alive, eight of his residents became diplomates of the American Board of Surgery, and many more who started their training under him became board-certified and did significant work all over the world.

Drew published 19 papers, the first 13 dealing with blood therapy. The last 6 reflected broadening interests, one posthumous title being "Negro Scholars in Scientific Research."

During 6 years as chairman of the surgical section of the National Medical Association, Drew brought new vigor and standards to the group. He was in demand as a speaker, and he served on numerous boards with a wide spectrum of interests, including the 12th Street Branch of the YMCA in Washington.

Most of Drew's achievements were promptly recognized. He received the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP (1943) and honorary doctor of science degrees from Virginia State College (1945) and Amherst College (1947). In 1946 he became a fellow of the International College of Surgeons and served in 1949 as surgical consultant to the surgeon general, U.S. Army. Drew's radiant geniality and warm sense of humor endeared him to patients. He married Minnie Lenore Robbins on Sept. 23, 1939, and the couple had four children. He was killed in an automobile accident on April 1, 1950.

In 1959 the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity presented an oil portrait of Dr. Drew to the American National Red Cross. In Los Angeles the Charles R. Drew Medical Society and the Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School of the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital perpetuate his name. A health center in Brooklyn and the Harlem Hospital Center blood bank in New York City are named for him. The surgical section of the National Medical Association has an annual Charles R. Drew Forum for the presentation of original surgical research, and about 20 public schools in America have been named for him.

Further Reading

Three full-length studies of Drew are Richard Hardwick, Charles Richard Drew: Pioneer in Blood Research (1967); Robert Lichello, Pioneer in Blood Plasma: Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1968) and Roland Bertol, Charles Drew (1970). There are sections devoted to Drew in Ben Richardson, Great American Negroes (1945; rev. ed. 1956); Emma Gelders Steme, Blood Brothers: Four Men of Science (1959); and Louis Haber, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention (1970). □

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