Monday, February 1, 2016

Black History Month: Charles Drew

Let's clear up one myth right now:  Charles Drew, a black man, did not die because a white hospital refused to treat him.

It's understandable how such a story got started, because in 1950, the year he died, the South was still under the thumb of Jim Crow, and Charles Drew died in North Carolina.

There is an irony to his death, but it's not that he, a black doctor, was refused treatment at a white hospital.  It is that he, the man that helped in developing blood banks, who performed research into blood transfusions, was unable to be helped by his own work.

Before we talk about the end of his life, let's review the life he lived.

Charles Richard Drew, the son of a carpet layer, was born on June 3, 1904, in Washington, D.C.  He grew up in Foggy Bottom, a Washington neighborhood now mostly occupied by the campus of George Washington University.

As a child and later, as a high school student, Drew excelled as an athlete.  He swam, played football, basketball, and other sports.  He graduated from Dunbar High school in 1922, and his talent and athletic accomplishments earned him a scholarship to Amherst College.  At Amherst, he played football and ran track, which earned him the Mossman trophy as "the man who contributed the most to athletics for four years".

He wanted to become a doctor, but did not have the money to pursue medical studies.  So he went to Baltimore and joined the faculty of Morgan State College (now Morgan State University).  For two years, he taught biology and worked as a coach, passing on his knowledge to his students in the classroom and on the athletic fields.

In 1928, he applied to medical school and began his studies in Montreal, at McGill University. During the five years Drew attended medical school, he joined Omega Psi Phi, became an Alpha Omega Alpha Scholar, and won the J. Francis Williams Fellowship, the result of a exam given to the top five students in his graduating class.  When Drew graduated from McGill in 1933, he was number two in his graduating class.

Drew taught pathology at Howard University, then became an instructor in surgery and assistant surgeon at Freedman's Hospital, which was associated with Howard.  In 1938, he received a Rockefeller fellowship in surgery and started post-graduate work at Columbia University, which awarded him a Doctor of Science in Surgery.

Dr. Charles Drew is mainly associated with the area of blood storage and blood transfusion.  What sparked his interest?  It may have been during his years at McGill, where he saved a man's life by giving him a blood transfusion.  In a child's biography of Dr. Drew that I read years ago, the author said that as Drew watched his blood flow out, he saw that "his blood wasn't black.  It was red."  He then told the people doing the transfusion: "Take all you need.  Beans make good blood."

Whether it was that event, or other events, or just something that made him think, Drew began study of techniques of preserving blood.  He learned that when you separated blood plasma (the liquid part of blood, which is a pale amber color) from whole blood (where red blood cells exist), and then refrigerate them separately, you could combine them for a blood transfusion up to a week later. Blood, prior to this, couldn't be stored for more than two days because red blood cells break down rapidly.  Drew also learned that while people have different blood types, we all have the same type of plasma.  This is why you can donate plasma to someone with a different blood type than yours.

Drew's work and research resulted in the following:  his doctoral thesis, entitled "Banked Blood", and a blood bank at Columbia University.  He became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia.

His work came just in time.  With World War II on the horizon, never before had there been such a vital need for blood and blood preservation.

World War II began on September 1, 1939, with Germany's invasion of Poland.  Twenty-eight days later, Drew married Lenore Robbins.  They would go on to have four children.  Not long after his marriage, Drew, because he was the authority in the field of preserving blood, became the director of the Blood for Britian project.  He was the supervisor of the Blood Transfusion Association of New York City, and as part of his job, he provided plasma to Britian's blood bank.

Later, Drew was named as a project director for the American Red Cross, the one organization that the US and the world associates with the collection of blood. 

But, despite the fact that blood is red no matter who it comes from, the War Department ordered that blood be segregated. Blood from white donors would be separated from that of black donors. d Cross but soon resigned his post after the United States War Department issued a directive that blood taken from White donors should be segregated from that of Black donors.  Later, the military said that blood taken from African Americans could be used--but only for African-American soldiers.

Charles Drew was outraged.  And so, in the face of the racism of the military, he resigned his post after only a few months.  

Between 1942 and 1950, Drew built a career for himself as surgeon and instructor.  He headed Howard University's Department of Surgery and was Chief of Surgery at Freedmen's Hospital; later becoming the hospital's chief of staff and medical director.  

He received numerous honors and accolades:  
--An honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Virginia State College and Amherst College
--Fellow of the International College of Surgeons
--The E.S. Jones Award for research in medical science
--The first African-American to be appointed an examiner by the American Board of Surgery
--Surgical consultant for the US Army's European theatre

In 1948, the NAACP awarded Drew its Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African-American. His work in blood plasma earned him this honor. (Neurosurgeon Ben Carson is also a recipient of this award.) 

Charles Drew died at the age of 45, as the result of an automobile accident in North Carolina. He, and three resident doctors from Howard University, were traveling to Tuskegee, Alabama to give a lecture.  Apparently, Drew fell asleep at the wheel.  The car ran off the road, he was thrown from the car, and the vehicle rolled over him.  His leg was nearly severed, and he sustained massive chest injuries, brain damage, a broken neck, and blood flow to his heart was completely blocked.  

He was raced to a nearby hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, but it was too late.   According to one website, Drew did receive a blood transfusion, but he was beyond medical help by that time. After Drew's death, his family wrote to the doctors that tried and failed to save his life, expressing their appreciation for their help.


In the biography of Drew I read as a child, the author said that Drew had gotten a new pair of shoes right before the trip to Tuskegee.  He never got to wear those shoes.  He was buried in them.

Almost immediately, the rumors started:  "They took him to a whites-only hospital and the hospital wouldn't give him a blood transfusion."  The TV show MASH repeated that rumor on one episode, and probably helped to perpetuate the story.  Given the circumstances of 1950, and the location of Drew's accident--North Carolina, the South, where segregation ruled--it was a story that very likely could have been true.  Drew, as stated above, did have an experience with racism when he briefly worked with the Red Cross, and no doubt, he suffered more experiences of racism throughout his life. The circumstances of his death are tragic enough without adding a layer of rumor on top of them.

It is because of Dr. Charles Drew that I was able to donate plasma to someone who had cancer and needed the plasma badly.  It's because of him that the term "blood bank" entered the American lexicon.  Because of his blood storage techniques, countless lives over the years have been saved, including that of my minister.

One slogan that is used in encouraging blood donation is "give the gift of life".  We all can do that, thanks to Charles Drew.




Sources used:

Jim Crow Museum, Question Of the Month: The Truth About the Death of Charles Drew (hosted by Ferris State University)
Biography.com: Charles Drew Biography - Doctor, Surgeon
Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science - About Dr. Charles R. Drew
Omega Psi Phi, Official Website: Famous Omega Men, Science
The Black Inventor On-Line Museum: Charles Drew

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