The Father of the Blood Bank: A Lasting Legacy

This week, in my Anatomy and Physiology class, I heard a name and saw a face I did not recognize. He was sitting in the laboratory, wearing a lab coat on top of his suit and tie. His hands preparing to view a slide with the microscope on the table. 

“Dr. Charles Richard Drew, an African American surgeon and researcher, Father of the Blood Bank,” my professor went on to say. 

I stared at the picture on my professor’s power point slide again. Questions were whirling in my mind. Who was this person? What exactly had he done? What was his life story? The most prominent though, was: Why had I never heard of this amazing person, the creator of the blood bank? 

I looked into his eyes, but Dr. Drew just stared right back at me. He couldn’t tell me. 

Well then, off to the internet. 

Dr. Drew was born in 1904 in Washington, DC and his career spanned from 1933 until his death in 1950. The United States was a segregated nation during this time, and unsurprisingly, like many other blacks, racial inequalities and barriers are an integral part of his story. 

Only a few medical schools accepted black students, and in the end, Drew attended one in Montréal, Canada, known for its better treatment of minorities. After schooling and transfusion research with professor John Beattie, Dr. Drew hoped to do his medical residency at Mayo Clinic. Again, not very many medical centers in America accepted black residents and he joined the Howard University College of Medicine instead. Dr. Drew didn’t stop there; he got a fellowship with surgeon Allen Whipple at Presbyterian Hospital in New York and pursued a doctorate, becoming the first African American to receive a doctorate in medicine from Columbia University. 

In 1939 he and John Scudder created an experimental blood bank (part of his dissertation) at Presbyterian Hospital, and a year later he was invited to direct the Blood for Britain project. It was the time of the Second World War and Britain needed blood to save its injured military personnel and civilians. 

A few New York hospitals, including Presbyterian, began a unified effort to collect and transport plasma to Britain. Dr. Drew, its medical director, established standard procedures for collecting blood and processing plasma from it. 

After Blood for Britain ended, he became assistant director of a new program to develop blood banks for the military of the United States. One of his notable creations was that of the mobile blood donation truck, also termed the “bloodmobile”. 

However, the U.S. military did not allow African Americans to donate blood – which means the very man who made this mass production of blood and plasma possible, was himself unable to donate. Later the policy was changed, but they would still segregate the blood of blacks from the blood of whites. 

Dr. Drew, appalled at these unjust and unscientific policies, quit. 

He spent the rest of his life as Chief of Surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital at Howard University, and training the next generation of physicians. Dr. Drew considered the greatest achievement of his life to be teaching African American medical students and surgical residents, and not his remarkable work that lead to the creation of a national blood bank system. 

As for the answer to why I and many of my classmates had never heard of Dr. Drew, despite having learned about blood and the importance of blood banks before, I cannot say. There is no doubt that he enabled thousands of lives to be saved in World War II and millions more through the national blood bank system. In fact, every two seconds, a person somewhere in America needs blood. 

Dr. Drew was a leading pioneer in blood and transfusion research as well as an accomplished surgeon, despite racial discrimination and the presence of other barriers. 

Today, in the 21st century, there are still racial discrepancies in the healthcare work force. African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population but only 4% are physicians. And these stats do not reflect the discrepancies in physician specialties. 

The struggle for equality, that is, equal opportunity for all, continues. And while we fight, we can also keep in mind that, in Dr. Drew’s words, “Excellence of performance will transcend artificial barriers created by man.”