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Dr. Charles Drew, father of the blood bank

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Having built a promising career in surgery, Drew began work on preserving blood plasma

While many things are happening right now around the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, such as quilting on the Cape and a fire prevention campaign in Springfield, my inner history major drew my attention to the life of Dr. Charles Drew and his contributions to the Red Cross.

I first heard of the accomplishments of Dr. Drew at Amherst College, our shared alma mater. Dr. Drew graduated nearly a century before I did, but his name lives on through the eponymous Charles Drew Memorial Culture House, a beautiful brick building on the northern side of campus.

Charles Richard Drew was born on June 3, 1904, in Washington D.C. He graduated from Amherst in 1926 and earned his medical degree in 1933 from McGill University in Montreal.

Already having built a promising career in research, teaching, and surgery, Dr. Drew began work on a method for processing and preserving blood plasma. Plasma can be stored for much longer periods of time than whole blood and Dr. Drew pioneered a method for dehydrating and reconstituting plasma, making it easier to store and transport.

Click here to learn more about donating plasma with the Red Cross.

Drew’s work also involved addressing the administrative and logistical challenges of blood donation that are easily taken for granted today. Blood needed to be collected using sterile instruments and then be properly refrigerated. Donors had to be recruited and screened, while personnel had to be trained to collect and test blood. Drew published his research in his doctoral thesis, “Banked Blood,” and in 1940 became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia University.

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At that time, German forces swept through Europe and threatened Great Britain. The British were in dire need of medical aid, particularly blood and plasma for transfusions. Several organizations, including the American Red Cross, launched the “Blood for Britain” program and Drew became heavily involved. The program was a success, resulting in the collection and delivery of thousands of units of plasma that saved countless lives during the war. It also provided Drew with a blueprint for a new program with the Red Cross. This effort became the model for the National Blood Donor Service and Drew became the director of the first Red Cross blood bank. Around this time, Drew became known as the “father of the blood bank,” though the modest man always pointed to the many others who contributed to make “Blood for Britain” and subsequent blood banking projects so successful.

Though Drew and his achievements were well ahead of their time, unfortunately many people involved in early blood banking were not. Drew battled racist policies that refused or segregated blood donated by black donors. In a 1944 speech, he noted that, “on the battlefields nobody is very interested in where the plasma comes from when they are hurt.” Despite Drew’s repeated efforts, the policies held until after his death.

Drew’s life was cut short by a car accident in 1950. However, his legacy is still alive and well today. Today, 15.7 million blood donations per year are collected in the US from 9.2 million donors (click here for more blood donation statistics). Drew’s name appears on numerous schools and institutions across the country. In 1981, he was featured in the United States Postal Service’s Great Americans stamp series. At Amherst, the brick house is named “not only in honor of his outstanding achievements but also as a testament to the continuous inspiration and example of achievements of black people such as Charles Drew.” The American Red Cross’ Charles Drew Institute in Biomedical Services is also named in his honor.