Sunday, February 1, 2015

Remember the Past: The Father of Blood Banks

As discussed in this post, I intend to do posts about Black Americans' throughout the month of February. Beyond February, I intend to post about historical figures.

This is the first post.

Charles Drew: The Father of Blood Banks
Dr. Charles Drew was a doctor and surgeon who developed ways to store blood plasma in blood banks. I chose him first because the story of his life and death left an indelible impression on the 6 year old me. I now know the story I learned of his death is a myth (explained below), but his life's work and its contribution to life today is still VERY impressive.

During high school and college, Drew excelled in many sports; the sports helped him attend college. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. After receiving his B.S. degree, he worked as a biology teacher at Morgan State University (then Morgan College) in Baltimore, MA. After two years at Morgan, he attended McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He excelled in his studies, and graduate in 1933 with a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees. He remained in Canada to complete an internship and residency for two years, then returned to the U.S. and worked as an instructor of pathology at Howard University in D.C. During his time at Howard, he was simultaneously an instructor and a resident at the Freedman Hospital (the teaching hospital at Howard).

He then spent two years at Columbia University in New York as a student and resident. It was here where his focus turned to blood transfusions. While at Columbia, he wrote a dissertation on "banked blood," in which he explained his development on how to store blood plasma for long periods. Prior to his work, blood plasma could only be stored for two days. His worked prompted him to convince Columbia to establish a blood bank.  Dr. Drew would become the first Black American to obtain a Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia University. After helping to establish Columbia's blood bank, he was asked to go to England to help them set up blood banks. During WWII, Dr. Drew led a program called Blood for Britain.

In 1941, he was helping the American Red Cross set up blood bank programs for U.S. military personnel, but after he realized that the blood would be racially segregated, he resigned. In 1942, he returned to Howard where he was a professor and head of surgery. He became the chief surgeon at the Freedman Hospital, and later became the first Black American examiner for the American Board of Surgery. He received many awards for his work, including the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. He continued to be a well-respected professional.

Unfortunately, Dr. Charles Drew died in 1950 after a car accident where he sustained severe injuries. The myth I learned as a child was that due to his injuries, he needed a blood transfusion, but because the accident was in the South, and there was no "black blood" available, he died from the lack of transfusion. Another version of the myth is that the town where it (Burlington, NC) happened did not have any hospital beds available for black people, so the hospital services let him die. 

The truth of that accident is that his injuries were so severe that he could not have survived. He was indeed cared for by a hospital. Although his colleagues who were traveling with him sustained minor injuries, he became pinned in the car and died a short time after reaching the hospital.

Dr. Charles Drew died at age 45, which seems so very young, but he accomplished so much. His work has saved countless numbers of lives, both during WWII and in the many decades since. Forty-five years young doesn't seem like many years, but at his funeral, the minister remarked that he had "a life which crowds into a handful of years significance so great men will never be able to forget." 

Sadly, it seems that the truly remarkable among us die soon, but the important thing is what do you do with that life while you have it, and what your lasting legacy will be. Dr. Charles Drew and his phenomenal work left a lasting impression on the world. We must not forget Dr. Drew and the many other people like him.

Pay attention to history.


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