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Charles Drew
Charles Drew Charles Drew


African American surgeon Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950) pioneered in developing the blood bank and was an outstanding leader in the training of surgeons On a stretch of Route 49, a state highway that runs through North Carolina, stands a tall rectangular marker inscribed in memory of Dr Charles Richard Drew, a pioneer in American medicine The monument is one of several memorials to him Another is a portrait that hangs in the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland Public schools, a park, and a medical school bear his name There is also a Charles R Drew Blood Center at the Red Cross Building in Washington, DC At the age of 45 in 1950, Drew was in his prime He was chief of surgery at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, DC, and professor of surgery at Howard University College of Medicine; he had penned nearly two dozen medical articles and had written a thesis that brought him international recognition as an expert on blood transfusion and storage; he had also been awarded the prestigious Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At the time of his death from injuries sustained in an automobile accident--which occurred on Route 49 on the very spot where the marker stands--Drew had earned a reputation for distinction and innovation in the medical field and was training young African American surgeons to the highest standard of professional excellence Drew was born into a middle-class family that valued self- reliance, resourcefulness, and an honest day's work The eldest of five children, young Charles learned these lessons well By the age of 12 he was supplementing his father's modest carpet layer's salary by working as a newspaper salesman One year later, showing an early knack for leadership, he had six other youngsters working for him In 1918 Drew entered Dunbar High School Long recognized as the nation's top educational facility for students of color, Dunbar was famous for its disciplined atmosphere and rigorous curriculum, which balanced academics with sports Drew excelled in both areas, earning varsity letters in four different sports, two James E Walker medals for athletic performance, and an athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts Drew's years at Amherst provided his first experience of life away from home.

Removed from the structured environment of Dunbar High, the freshman spent so much time socializing and focusing on sports--he was track team captain and star halfback on the school's football team--that his grades began to slip Hamilton Bims noted in an article for Ebony that Drew was summoned to the dean's office for a pep talk about the relative importance of brain and brawn when career choices were being made The uncomfortable interview ended with a subtle reminder to think carefully about his future "Mr Drew, " the dean reportedly stated, "Negro athletes are a dime a dozen Good day" Drew's grades did not slip again He had decided to become a doctor and did not dare risk rejection from medical schools by placing too much emphasis on sports Still, he managed to graduate with both scholastic and athletic honors in 1926 Yet it was Drew's flair for sports that opened the door to his chosen future.

With four younger children to educate, Drew's father was unable to help him financially after graduation from Amherst In order to save money for medical school, young Charles worked as the athletics director of Morgan State College in Baltimore, leading mediocre athletes to heights they had never before achieved The experience taught him that he was capable of inspiring students to their utmost effort--a skill he would later sharpen when he began to train surgical residents By 1928 Drew had augmented his Morgan State salary with a job as a lifeguard plus part-time biology and chemistry teaching posts; soon he had just enough money to pay his tuition fees Determined to make his savings stretch as far as possible, he applied to Howard University in Washington, DC, so that he could live at home and commute to classes But Howard rejected him because he lacked two necessary English credits Drew was shaken, but remained adamant in his goals, as his brother Joseph told biographer Charles E Wynes in 1983.

"Someday," he is reported to have vowed, "I'll come back here and run this damned place!" Drew was later accepted to McGill University in Montreal Despite a heavy academic schedule, Drew somehow found time to join the college football team and even became a nationally acclaimed hurdler Still, his small savings was barely enough to cover his living expenses Too proud to let his friends foot the bill for after-hours parties, Drew spent many evenings alone; he was frugal with the little money he did have, buying only necessities and eating the most inexpensive food available A loan from Amherst eased his financial problems a bit; so did a job waiting on tables Still, he was much relieved to win a Rosenwald fellowship for $1,000 in the fall of his junior year, plus the Williams Prize for excellence in scholarship one year later Drew earned his medical degree in 1933 and stayed in Montreal until 1935 to complete his internship and residency Then, news of his father's death brought him back to Washington, DC, where he reluctantly accepted the unenviable post of pathology instructor at Howard University.

Drew's supervisor at Howard, Dr Edward Lee Howes, had recently signed a five- year contract to head the university's Department of Surgery Howes had been appointed specifically to train upcoming black surgeons, who could benefit considerably by his own experiences at Yale and Columbia universities, his postgraduate studies in Europe, and his valuable network of contacts An uncompromising stickler for excellence, Howes was selected surgical department head by Howard's dean on the clear understanding that he would be succeeded by his most promising student Drew's intelligence and organization skills made an immediate impression on Howes, who suggested that he aim for a doctor of science degree and advanced surgical training at Columbia University in New York--something never before done by an African American student Howes also arranged for a two-year Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for Drew This was a golden opportunity to quash the ludicrous, stereotypical notion of intellectual inferiority among people of color In Charles Richard Drew, Wynes quoted from a letter Drew had written to his future wife, Lenore Robbins: "It's much more than a degree I'm after," he explained "There are those in high places who feel that Negroes have not yet reached intellectual levels which will permit their attempting the very highest reaches" At Columbia, Drew's assigned research topics--blood transfusion and chemistry--were subjects that had interested him since his medical school days He gave his dissertation the simple title "Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation" and eagerly tackled the mammoth task it represented, while juggling the responsibilities of a spot in the residency program.

Drew conducted his research at New York's Presbyterian Hospital, an affiliate of Columbia's School of Medicine Despite the heavy workload, he prepared a meticulous and authoritative study prefaced with an introduction tracing the history of blood transfusions all the way back to the first documented experiment in seventeenth-century France It was a back-breaking effort, but it fulfilled his basic goal of forging medical advancements throughout the world By the time Drew graduated from Columbia in 1940, Hitler's Luftwaffe (or German air force) was raining bombs upon England, and the massive number of casualties was soaring There was a desperate need for blood in quantities so large that the British Army Blood Transfusion Service had to turn to the United States for help Understanding the urgency of the situation, the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association, a division of the New York Academy of Medicine, immediately established a "Blood for Britain" program in association with the American Red Cross The two organizations worked smoothly together: the Red Cross collected the blood from donors while the Association supplied technical expertise, plus $15,000 as a start-up fund from its treasury With logistics firmly in place, the "Blood for Britain" participants turned their thoughts to the form of blood that would be fastest and easiest to send overseas Whole blood, usually the prime pick for transfusions, was now a second-best choice, since its month-long shelf life could only be extended by proper freezing and storage in a blood bank And blood banks, requiring sterile conditions and precisely calculated refrigeration, were next to impossible to set up on the battlefield.

The answer to the transfusion dilemma lay in the use of plasma, the straw-yellow fluid that remains after the cells in blood have been removed by centrifuging Plasma offered several advantages besides a longer shelf life: it was much cheaper to handle than whole blood; it could be used for people of all blood types (A, B, AB, and O); and it seldom produced serious reactions in patients On August 9, 1940, the first air shipment of blood plasma left for England via the Portuguese Embassy in Lisbon A second load followed immediately but could not be used; the plasma it contained had a cloudy appearance, suggesting that either the donors had eaten too heavily just prior to giving blood, or the plasma had become contaminated after it was drawn The Blood Transfusion Betterment Association decided to appoint a project supervisor to investigate and standardize the process of blood collection and storage No one was better qualified to take the helm than Charles Richard Drew An enduring myth credits Drew with the development of the blood plasma used on the battlefields during World War II He would have been the first to deny this claim In a paper called "Newer Knowledge of Blood Transfusions," published in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine in May of 1941, he specifically mentions the pioneering work of Henry Bowditch, a physiologist who was aware of plasma's potential as early as 1871 The same article also pays tribute to an English physician named Ward, who suggested the use of plasma for battlefield transfusions during World War I.

Still, Drew and several other researchers worked to refine liquid plasma preservation techniques Having obtained a four- month leave from Howard University in September of 1940, he got off to a brisk start, instituting a system of rigorous processing in a central laboratory so that the sterility of all donated blood could be controlled Drew later relieved the community hospitals of their constant donor traffic by introducing the idea of a refrigerated mobile blood bank By January of 1941, the combined efforts of the American Red Cross and the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association had helped Britain to amass an ample supply of plasma The "Blood for Britain" project was over, but Drew's task was not With US involvement in the war looming closer, he was still badly needed in New York Obligingly, Howard granted him a three- month extension on his leave of absence As had been the case with "Blood for Britain," the segregation of blood taken from African American donors was, at that time, considered an important issue Segregation in the ranks was rigidly practiced by the American military, and in 1941 the Red Cross was instructed to accept only the blood of white donors for use in transfusions among members of the American armed forces It is interesting to note that black soldiers were fighting just as valiantly as their white counterparts for democracy.

Also intriguing is that Drew himself, a distinguished African American physician and the director of the blood donor project, would have been unacceptable as a donor under these conditions Drew met the decision of the military with his usual calm Later, in January of 1942, blood from black donors was deemed worthy of acceptance for the armed forces, though only on a segregated basis Drew's response to this outrageous practice was published in the Chicago Defender: "Only extensive education and an increasing fight on our part to disseminate the scientific facts and raise our levels of achievement can overcome this prejudice which is founded on ignorance".

In April of 1941, a month before his leave of absence was up, Drew left New York to return home to Howard Some sources claim that the segregation requirements caused him to leave early But a more likely reason, according to Louis Haber in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, is the fact that he had previously targeted the spring of '41 as the date for taking certification examinations required by the American Board of Surgery Charles Drew's ascent up the academic ladder was slow He had been at Howard for about six years before being named professor of surgery in 1941 Still, he wanted the country's first black surgeons to stand proudly among America's best, so he set unbending standards for study, personal hygiene, and even acceptable forms of recreation among his students years of Drew's life contained some tragic paradoxes Welcomed as a member of the American-Soviet Committee on Science, he was denied membership in the American College of Surgeons And although he served as chief of staff at Freedmen's Hospital, as well as professor of surgery at Howard, he was effectively barred from membership in the American Medical Association (AMA) An old AMA ruling giving membership jurisdiction to county chapters was the obstacle, since it allowed discriminatory pressure groups to control their chapters without restriction.

Since Drew was an academic leader and his patients were all admitted to Freedmen's Hospital, a black institution, this did not constitute a serious problem for him Nevertheless, in 1947, he came to the defense of other black physicians in practice; their lack of AMA membership prevented them from admitting patients to predominantly white hospitals, denied them official opinions about nationwide medical policies, and curbed their knowledge of new research--all issues that sent many of their patients rushing to white physicians who were less entangled in race-related red tape Destiny decreed that these matters of racial politics would not be solved during Drew's short lifetime They were still pending on April 1, 1950, when he and three other doctors drove out of Washington at about 2:15 am, bound for a free clinic for impoverished patients in Tuskegee, Alabama Drew had spent the previous day in surgery and had only a couple of hours' rest before setting out in the early morning darkness He was driving toward the North Carolina town of Haw River just before 8:00 am, and evidence suggests that he may have fallen asleep at the wheel for a moment.

The automobile crashed Although his three passengers escaped the accident with only superficial injuries, Drew was not so lucky The car had flipped over and trapped him, breaking his neck and crushing his chest so tightly that all blood flow to his heart was cut off A highway marker was erected at the site of the accident in 1986 to commemorate Drew's achievements in medicine As Dr Charles Watts, a Drew disciple interviewed by Wynes, put it: "He helped prepare a whole new generation of surgeons, and a whole new thrust in training" .

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