Celebrating Black History: Dr. Charles Drew, “Father of the Blood Bank”

Known as the “father of the blood bank,” Dr. Charles R. Drew was the inventor who pioneered blood transfusion and improved techniques for blood storage in the United States.

February marks the 45th annual celebration of Black History Month, dedicated to honoring and spotlighting the significant works, achievements, and contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to our society and the world. To celebrate, each week throughout Black History Month, Trusted Medical is spotlighting an African American medical pioneer whose groundbreaking contributions changed the course of medicine and paved the way for future generations to come. Click here if you missed last week’s incredible innovator. This week, we highlight the life of Dr. Charles R. Drew. Keep reading to learn more about Dr. Drew and his groundbreaking role in the field of medicine. 

Early Life & Education 

Born in Washington D.C. to an African American middle-class family, Dr. Drew grew up as an outstanding athlete, whose gifts and talent earned him an athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts where he shined as a track and football star. In 1926, he graduated from Amherst College with his bachelor’s degree but did not have enough money to pursue his dream of attending medical school. 

He worked as a biology and chemistry professor and coach at Morgan College, now Morgan State University, until he was able to earn the money to apply to medical school. Two years later, he applied to McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada where he distinguished himself as a top student; winning a prize in neuroanatomy, achieving membership in Alpha Omega Alpha, a medical honor society, ranking second in his graduating class of 127 students, and by earning both Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees in 1933. 

After graduation, he worked as a faculty instructor in pathology at Howard University from 1935 to 1936 and later did a surgery residence at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C., becoming both an instructor and an assistant surgeon at the facility. 

In 1938, Dr. Drew received a Rockefeller Fellowship to study at Columbia University and began postgraduate work, earning his Doctor of Science in surgery at Columbia. There, he continued his education and research about blood, and his doctoral thesis, “Banked Blood,” was a study on his discoveries and methods of processing and preserving blood plasma. He discovered that plasma lasts much longer than blood and can therefore be stored or “banked” for longer periods as the plasma could be dried and then preserved when needed. Drew became the first African American to receive his doctorate from Columbia University. 

World War II & The Need for Blood      

His thesis and research at Columbia earned him great recognition, and Dr. Drew was asked to serve as the medical director for a special medical project known as “Blood for Britain” which provided life-saving blood supplies for both British soldiers and civilians. With World War II raging and the number of casualties growing, the demand for life-saving blood supplies and materials drastically increased. As the medical director for “Blood for Britain,” Drew supervised the successful collection of roughly 14,500 pints of plasma for the British. 

In February 1941, Drew was appointed medical director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank. He developed a blood bank to be used for the U.S. Army and Navy, but became frustrated with the military’s request for segregating blood donations by African Americans. 

He argued strongly against the exclusion of blood donations by African American donors and plasma-supply networks. Later, the U.S. military would accept blood donations for African Americans but required that those donations be stored separately from that of whites. Outraged by this policy, he resigned from his official posts, after seven months. 

Death & Legacy   

Drew returned to Howard University in 1941, where he served as a surgeon and professor of medicine, as the head of the university’s department of surgery. He became chief surgeon at Freedman’s Hospital and in the same year became the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery. 

In recognition of his work and success on the British and American blood bank projects, the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1944. Both Virginia State College and his alma mater, Amherst, presented him with an honorary doctor-of-science degree in 1945 and 1947. 

A highly regarded medical professional, Drew remained active in the final years of his life. On April 1, 1950, Drew was driving with three other physicians to the annual meeting of the John A. Andrews Association in Tuskegee, Alabama, when his car struck the soft shoulder of the road and overturned. Drew was severely injured and rushed to a nearby hospital in Burlington, North Carolina where he succumbed to his injuries just a half-hour later. His three passengers survived the crash. 

At his untimely death, Drew was only 45 years old and left behind his wife, Minnie, his four children, and a legacy of inspiration and service. Since his passing, Drew continues to receive countless posthumous honors. In 1981, Drew was issued a stamp in his honor in the U.S. Postal Service’s Great Americans stamp series. Numerous schools, health, and education institutions have been named in his honor. To read more about Dr. Drew and how his work still impacts our society, visit Dr. Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, a private, nonprofit, community-founded, student-centered University dedicating to cultivating diverse health professions leaders and preserving Dr. Drew’s legacy.