Blood donation has become one of the most well-known and most effective life-saving medical techniques in modern surgery. Countless lives are saved each year through blood donation. One of the most important figures in modern blood banks was Dr. Charles Richard Drew, whose efforts saved many lives during World War II.


Drew was born in Washington, DC, in June 1904. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a carpet layer. The couple made a comfortable living for Drew and his four brothers and sisters.


After graduating high school in 1922, Drew earned an athletic scholarship at Amherst University in Massachusetts. After graduating in 1926, he worked for two years as a professor of biology and chemistry as well as a football coach at Morgan College in Maryland to save money for medical school. Drew attended the prestigious McGill University medical school in Canada where he was an honors student and graduated second in his class in 1933.


In 1935, he began serving as a professor of surgery at Howard University in Washington, DC. In 1938, he decided to further his medical studies at Columbia University in New York City. Along the way, he married Minnie Robbins in 1939, a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta. They would have four children. While at Columbia in 1940, he wrote an important paper on blood banking techniques and was awarded an additional Doctor of Science in Medicine degree, the first African-American to be so honored.


Blood transfusions became a great passion for Drew as World War II began. Successful person-to-person blood transfusions had been performed as early as 1818. More advanced techniques for whole blood transfusion from stored supplies as well as the development of blood banks began to emerge in World War I as battlefield surgeons struggled to keep the wounded alive. These efforts continued to expand and improve.


In 1940, Drew was named medical director of the "Blood for Britain" project, where Americans donated blood for the British war effort, a program that saved thousands of lives. Drew helped develop new techniques for separating the plasma from whole blood to be stored and used in medical emergencies. This greatly increased the available supply and allowed it to be stored longer. To encourage more donations, Drew also pioneered the use of the bloodmobile as a means to more easily store and transport blood donations as well as to bring donation sites closer to potential donors.


In 1941, Drew was appointed director of the Red Cross blood bank. The blood being collected would be used for the army and navy. The military was still segregated at the time, and the Red Cross followed these policies and banned African-Americans from donating blood, a policy Drew condemned as "indefensible." Even though African-Americans were fighting and dying in the battlefields overseas and there was absolutely no difference between the blood of different races, the ban remained in place. Months of protests erupted across the nation in response, with scientists, activists, and the American Medical Association condemning the practice. Reluctantly, the Red Cross allowed African-Americans to donate blood by 1942 but required that the blood be segregated by race, a requirement that made no medical sense at all. With this added humiliation, Drew resigned in protest.


He was hailed as a hero among his fellow doctors and scientists. He was given several awards and honorary degrees from a number of universities and organizations. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander during the war, praised the blood donation efforts for saving lives.


Drew continued to serve as a surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC, and continued to work as a professor of medicine at Howard University. He routinely traveled to teach medical students in the South.


On April 1, 1950, he was returning from a conference at Tuskegee University in Alabama when disaster struck. After a long, late-night drive with three other doctors, he lost control of his car in North Carolina and crashed. All four were injured, but Drew was hurt the worst of all. Even with three other physicians at his side, the news was grim.


By the time that paramedics arrived, the wounds had already proven fatal. Though it was common for African-Americans to be denied care at segregated hospitals at the time, Drew’s fellow doctors at the scene dispelled the story that circulated in later years that had been the cause of his death. He died less than 30 minutes after he arrived at the nearest hospital. The brilliant and compassionate surgeon whose work would save millions of lives was dead at the age of 45.


The Red Cross ended its practice of segregating blood supplies in 1950, but some southern segregated states continued the practice into the 1960s and 1970s. In the years since, much work has been done to end discrimination in medical practices though much controversy remains. Since Drew’s death, more than a dozen schools across the nation have been named for Drew, including an elementary school in Texas and a medical school in California.


Special Note: With the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, there is still a massive need for blood and plasma donations at area hospitals. If your health permits, contact your local blood donation facility to schedule a time to donate. One donation of a pint of blood can save up to three lives.


Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.