If you’ve ever given or received a blood donation, or know a loved one’s life was spared due to a blood transfusion, then you should thank Dr Charles Drew, the most instrumental pioneer of blood banking. Chances are, however, that you may have never heard of him.
Dr. Drew innovated new ways of storing, donating, and transporting blood in the early 1940s, developing protocols unprecedented during this time. These methods designed by Drew are still the gold standard used by the Red Cross today, however, his legacy is just a footnote on the American Red Cross website. But it is our duty here at ‘Reclaim the Bench’ to highlight our unsung heroes and bring their accomplishments into the foreground. In this week’s episode, Megan and Jamal will be exploring the life and legacy of Dr. Charles Drew.
Who is Dr. Drew?
Born to a middle-class family with five siblings, Drew wasn’t the most academically enthusiastic student. Drew instead was most passionate about athletics which was highlighted during his undergraduate years at Amherst College, where he won various awards including the most valuable player.
Long before becoming a world-renowned surgeon and biomedical researcher, Drew first worked as a teacher, a football coach, and athletic director to earn money for medical school. Once he had his medical training, there were no stop signs on his journey toward greatness.
Drew would not only go on to become the first-ever African-American to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery, but his contribution to the field of blood and fluid transfusion science would revolutionize medical treatment and save millions of soldier and pedestrian lives.
Based on Drew’s graduate discoveries in isolating plasma which dramatically increased the shelf life of plasma to two months, he was later tasked with developing a blood storage system to be used for the “Blood for Britain” initiative, which was designed to transport desperately needed blood and plasma to American Allies in Great Britain, which was under attack by Germany. This job was tricky, he needed to collect, store, and transport blood safely. It was here that he came up with the idea of bloodmobiles- customized vehicles that housed refrigeration units to increase the shelf-life of blood collected at donation sites.
He survived a time where he couldn’t have a drink from the same water-fountain as his colleagues and much of the country was still segregated between ‘Colored’ and ‘Whites.’
However, this was not just simply adding coolers to buses, Drew combined this logistical approach with his innovations in the isolation and storage of plasma. Though not a replacement for blood, it made for a good substitute, especially in life and death situations like trauma or war.
Drew’s model became so robust, that the American Red Cross adopted it and eventually named Drew the Director of their first blood bank in 1941. However Drew’s appointment was short-lived, as the military first rejected the use of blood from African-Americans, and then said they would accept ‘colored blood’ but they will have to be stored separately. Apparently, they were unaware that all of us bleed red. Indignant with such discrimination, Dr Drew decided to step down, but his legacy remains.
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His life is an inspiring tale of fortitude and will-power. He survived a time where he couldn’t have a drink from the same water-fountain as his colleagues and much of the country was still segregated between ‘Colored’ and ‘Whites.’ From soldiers in World War II to an accident survivor in your neighborhood- everyone owes gratitude to Dr Charles Drew.
If you want to know more, listen to our podcast linked below where his life, work, and medical significance is discussed in-depth.