Issue: June 25, 2008
June 25, 2008
4 min read

Charles Drew: Unassuming hero of World War II

His research and methods for banking blood helped save hundreds of lives, both in Britain and the United States.

Issue: June 25, 2008
You've successfully added to your alerts. You will receive an email when new content is published.

Click Here to Manage Email Alerts

We were unable to process your request. Please try again later. If you continue to have this issue please contact

Charles Richard Drew was a leader and an inspiration in both the medical and black American communities during his time as a surgeon, teacher and researcher. As director of the first American Red Cross effort to collect and bank blood, diplomat of surgery for the American Board of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University and the first black surgeon to serve as an examiner on the board, Drew became well known and highly respected for his achievements.

One success in particular saved hundreds of lives, gained him world-renowned fame and added incredible capabilities to the field of hematology.

Athlete turned doctor

Charles Richard Drew, MD
Charles Richard Drew

Source: Charles Drew Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Drew was born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C.’s Foggy Bottom region. He was the eldest of five children. He excelled at sports like swimming, football, baseball, basketball and track and was a successful student.

In 1922, Drew received an athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts and was one of 16 black students to graduate from the school between 1920 and 1929. While at Amherst, Drew was captain of the track team and excelled in his studies.

After graduation in 1926, Drew became a professor of chemistry and biology and a coach at Morgan State College in Baltimore. His decision to attend medical school came seemingly unprompted and the reasons why he became a surgeon remain unknown, but in 1928 he applied to the only two medical schools that accepted black applicants.

A lack of English credits led to Drew’s rejection by Washington’s Howard University, but he was accepted to Harvard University for the following year. However, Drew’s excitement and hunger for knowledge led him to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he studied medicine and surgery.

While at McGill, Drew began researching blood transfusions with John Beattie, a visiting professor from England. At the time, blood could only be stored a maximum of seven days before spoiling.

Drew continued to work with Beattie after he graduated from McGill in 1933 with his medical and master of surgery degrees. In 1934, he returned to Washington where he accepted a teaching position at Howard University Medical School and completed a one-year residency at Freedmen’s Hospital.

Lifesaving discovery

While completing his fellowship at Columbia University-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, Drew worked with John Scudder, MD, and E.H.L. Corwin, MD, researching blood storage. Using plasma, Drew discovered a method for processing and preserving blood to be shipped vast distances.

Amidst his research and development, Drew married Minnie Lenore Robbins in 1939, and together they had four children.

In 1940, following the receipt of his doctor of science degree and his dissertation titled, “Banked blood: a study in blood preservation,” Drew was asked to act as medical supervisor in the Plasma for Britain project, which supplied both British soldiers and civilians with massive amounts of lifesaving blood.

For the project, Drew transformed laboratory experiments into mass plasma production and initiated the use of “bloodmobiles” — refrigerated trucks, which are still used today by the Red Cross.

Due to the success of the project and the United States’ expected involvement in the war, the government asked the Red Cross to develop a project similar to Britain’s, but on a smaller scale.

In 1941, a center was established at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Again, Drew was asked to serve as medical supervisor, though this time, the plasma was to be in a dried form instead of the previous liquid form sent to Britain. During this time, the project grew into the American Red Cross Blood Donor Service.

Drew’s position with the Red Cross was short-lived after he learned that blood was being typed according to race. He fought authority to include black donors, citing the lack of scientific proof to support the theory that blood differed by race. Although his efforts did not go unnoticed, the final ruling stated that the blood of blacks would be accepted, but would have to be stored separately from that of whites. In response to this decision, after a total of seven months in both blood projects, Drew resigned.

A lifetime of achievement

Despite the unfavorable decision of the United States military, Drew was not defeated. In 1941, the same year he resigned from the Red Cross, Drew returned to Washington, D.C. to accept a position as professor of surgery at Howard University. In 1943, he became the first of his race to be selected as a member of the American Board of Surgery.

In recognition of his advancements and contributions to human welfare, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1944. His titles and successes grew during the next six years when he was presented with two honorary doctor-of-science degrees from both Virginia State College and Amherst. In 1946, he was elected as Fellow to the International College of Surgeons.

As a consultant to the Surgeon General, Drew traveled through occupied Europe in the summer of 1949 with four other physicians evaluating hospital facilities.

Leaving a legacy behind

In 1950, while en-route to a medical conference at Tuskegee Institute, Drew was killed in a car accident. He held his position as professor of surgery at Howard University until his untimely death.

In 1976, Drew became the first black person to join the gallery of scientists at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health. And in 1981, the United States Postal Service issued the “Great Americans” stamp collection, which commemorated Charles Drew for all of his contributions to mankind. – by Stacey L. Adams

For more information: