Charles Drew (1904-1950)

Credits:Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Charles Drew was an African-American surgeon and medical researcher, best remembered as the inventor of the blood bank.

Charles Drew was born in Washington, DC in 1904. Excelling in sport as a young boy, Drew later won an athletics scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. In 1928 he decided to pursue a long-held interest in medicine, accepting a place at McGill University in Montreal. Here Drew performed his first life-saving blood transfusion and encountered John Scudder, an assistant professor of clinical surgery who was achieving national recognition for his research on body fluids. Both these events had a profound impact on Drew’s later career.

On graduating from McGill, Drew worked in a number of hospitals before becoming the first black American to earn a doctor of medical science degree from Columbia University. During his residency at Columbia University’s Presbyterian Hospital, Drew conducted research on blood transfusions, discovering that if he separated the plasma from the whole blood and then refrigerated the two separately, he could combine them up to a week later. He also discovered that plasma transfusions could be administered regardless of blood types.

Drew played an instrumental role administering blood banks during the Second World War. In early 1940, when Britain faced possible invasion, it was realised that life-saving blood might be needed on a massive scale by both the civilian population and the military forces. In anticipation, the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association in New York, supported by the American Red Cross, undertook a pilot project to collect blood which could be shipped to Britain. Drew became director of the project, known as ‘Plasma for Britain’. He later became Project Director for the American Red Cross, a post he resigned when the United States War Department issued a directive that blood from white donors and black donors should be segregated.

After the war, Drew became Chief of Staff and Medical Director of Freedmen’s Hospital and was awarded a number of prizes and honours for his contributions to medicine, and in particular his pioneering work on plasma.

Drew died in a car accident in 1950.