At a time when millions of soldiers were dying on battlefields across Europe, the invention of Dr. Charles R. Drew saved countless lives. Drew realized that separating and freezing the component parts of blood would enable it to be safely reconstituted later. This technique led to the development of the blood bank.
Charles Drew was born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. Drew excelled in academics and sports during his graduate studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He was also an honor student at McGill University Medical School in Montreal, where he specialized in physiological anatomy.
Charles Drew researched blood plasma and transfusions in New York City where he became a Doctor of Medical Science and the first African-American to do so at Columbia University. There he made his discoveries relating to the preservation of blood. By separating the liquid red blood cells from the near solid plasma and freezing the two separately, he found that blood could be preserved and reconstituted at a later date.
Blood Banks and World War II
Charles Drew’s system for the storing of blood plasma (blood bank) revolutionized the medical profession. Dr. Drew was chosen to set up a system for storing blood and for its transfusion, a project nicknamed “Blood for Britain.” This prototypical blood bank collected blood from 15,000 people for soldiers and civilians in World War II Britain and paved the way for the American Red Cross blood bank, of which he was the first director. In 1941, the American Red Cross decided to set up blood donor stations to collect plasma for the U.S. armed forces.
After the War
In 1941, Drew was named an examiner on the American Board of Surgeons, the first African-American to do so. After the war, Charles Drew took up the Chair of Surgery at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He received the Spingarn Medal in 1944 for his contributions to medical science. In 1950, Charles Drew died from injuries suffered in a car accident in North Carolina—he was only 46 years old. Unfounded rumor had it that Drew was ironically denied a blood transfusion at the North Carolina hospital because of his race, but this wasn’t true. Drew’s injuries were so severe that the life-saving technique he invented could not have saved his own life.