This Dr. Drew saved millions of lives

Dr. Charles Drew, blood bank pioneer during World War II (Photo Credit: LIFE, via BI)

In the fall of 1940, Churchill stood alone against Hitler. Fascist forces dominated mainland Europe while the Luftwaffe bombed London and wolf packs of U-boats sank ships around Britain.

Franklin Roosevelt recognized the danger, but most Americans remained staunchly isolationist. Federal law forbade US aid to countries at war, and in that election year, many questioned the president’s requests to revise or circumvent the Neutrality Acts — even to send economic and military aid to the West’s last bulwark against Nazi tyranny.

Meanwhile, a few charities found legal ways to help; Presbyterian Hospital staff at Columbia University organized a massive blood drive. In the space of a few months, more than 14,000 New Yorkers donated blood for shipment across the Atlantic for use by British soldiers and civilians.

The blood drive depended on new medical innovations developed by Charles Drew, an African American doctoral student. Through his dissertation research, he developed methods for the mass collection and testing of blood, including the separation of plasma from red blood cells for safe long-term storage.

Born in Washington, DC on June 3, 1904, Drew excelled as a student and lettered in several sports at Dunbar High School. An athletic scholarship enabled him to earn a bachelor degree at Amherst College. At McGill University in Montreal, he finished second in a class of 127 medical students. Finally, a Rockefeller Fellowship financed his second doctorate and breakthrough discoveries at Columbia University.

Early in 1941, the American Red Cross hired Drew to help them launch blood banks nationwide. Although the US remained neutral, FDR had persuaded the public to support expanded aid to Britain and increased preparedness for the armed forces — including the Red Cross blood drive.

As a thoroughly segregated institution, the US Army imposed unreasonable restrictions on the Red Cross. Initially, the Army refused to accept blood donations from African Americans, “making Drew himself ineligible to participate in the very program he established.” After a few months, the Army relented, but demanded that the Red Cross track the race of blood donors and store black and white blood separately. Drew protested again. Transfusions, he patiently explained, require only a compatible blood type; the race of the donor is medically and scientifically irrelevant. He cited the danger of troops dying with blood available of the right type from a donor of the “wrong” color. When the Army refused to see reason, he tendered a principled resignation.

Still, Drew’s blood bank innovations saved thousands of lives as the Allies won World War II. Meanwhile, he joined the faculty at Howard University, where he trained a new generation of African American physicians, and earned national recognition for his accomplishments.

Every year, Drew and his colleagues traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama to donate their services at a free clinic. In 1950, he did not make it. While driving through North Carolina, he fell asleep behind the wheel and drove off the road. Cars did not have seat belts back then, so his body was thrown from the cab while one foot remained trapped under the brake pedal. The vehicle rolled over him three times; “Drew suffered a nearly severed leg, massive chest injuries, a broken neck, brain damage, and complete blockage of the blood flow to his heart.”

Drew and another seriously injured passenger were taken to the nearest medical facility. Under segregation, white hospitals often refused to treat colored patients, but on this occasion, the staff of Alamance General Hospital decided to serve Hippocrates rather than Jim Crow. Despite their best efforts — including blood transfusions — Drew died soon after arrival. However, Alamance staff treated his colleague for several days before stabilizing his condition and transferring him to a black facility to complete his recovery.

Dead at the age of 45, Drew was survived by a widow and four children. Of course, his medical innovations continue to save millions of lives every year.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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