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Charles Richard Drew
June 3, 1904 - April 1, 1950
Physician and Medical Researcher


Dr. Charles Richard Drew was an African American physician and medical researcher. He researched in the field of blood transfusions, developing improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge in developing large-scale blood banks early in World War II, saving thousands of lives of the Allied forces. He protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood as it lacked scientific foundation, which got him fired. In 1943, Drew's distinction in his profession was recognized when he became the first black surgeon to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.

Drew was born to Richard Y. Drew and Nora Burrell in Washington, DC. He attended Meads Mill Elementary School, and began working as a paperboy selling copies of the Washington Times-Herald while attending school. In 1918, he enrolled at Dunbar High School, a racially segregated high school with a reputation for being one of the strongest Black public schools in the country. He also was an athlete, which won him a partial scholarship to Amherst College, Massachusetts. Drew’s sister, Elsie, who was ailing with tuberculosis, died of pandemic influenza in 1920, and is said to have influenced him to study medicine. Drew was also a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated.

Blood Plasma for Great Britain Project

In late 1940, just after earning his doctoral thesis, Drew was called upon by John Scudder to help set up and administer an early prototype program for collecting, testing, and distributing blood plasma in Britain. Drew went to New York to direct the US' Blood for Britain project. The Blood for Britain project was a project to aid British soldiers and civilians by giving blood to Britain. He provided a central location for the blood collection process where donors could go to give blood. He also made sure all blood plasma was tested before it was shipped out. He also oversaw that only skilled personnel would be able to handle blood plasma to avoid the possibility of contamination. The Blood for Britain program operated successfully for five months, with total collections of almost 15,000 people donating blood, and with over 5,500 vials of blood plasma. As a result, the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association applauded Drew for his fine work.

Death

Drew, being the chief surgeon, represented Freedmen at a number of medical conferences. Drew attended the annual free clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, since 1939. A change of plans occurred before the 1950 Tuskegee clinic. To save money, Drew decided to drive with three other physicians rather than fly. The four men took turns driving in shifts, with Drew taking second shift around 8 a.m. on April 1. Still fatigued from spending the night before in the operating theater, Drew lost control of the vehicle and after careening into a field, the car somersaulted three times. The three other physicians suffered minor injuries. However, Drew was trapped — his foot had become wedged beneath the brake pedal. When reached by emergency technicians, Drew was in shock and barely alive due to severe leg injuries. Drew was taken to Alamance General Hospital in Burlington, NC. He was pronounced dead a half hour after he first received medical attention. Contrary to legend, Drew was well treated by the hospital. Claims that he was not treated because of his skin color are unfounded. His funeral was held on April 5, 1950, at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

Legacy

A persistent urban legend holds that Drew was denied care by a nearby hospital because of his race, and bled to death. This is denied by one of the other black doctors with whom he was travelling, who stated: "We all received the very best of care. The doctors started treating us immediately. [...] He had a superior vena caval syndrome—blood was blocked getting back to his heart from his brain and upper extremities. To give him a transfusion would have killed him sooner. Even the most heroic efforts couldn't have saved him. I can truthfully say that no efforts were spared in the treatment of Drew, and, contrary to popular myth, the fact that he was a Negro did not in any way limit the care that was given to him." The apocryphal story of his death was repeated in an episode of the television series M*A*S*H episode, "Dear Dad... Three", and in the Philip Roth novel, The Human Stain.

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