February 8, 2022

National Black History Month: Dr. Charles Richard Drew

Celebrating the Father of the Blood Bank

Life-changing innovations come along rarely. Personal computers and the internet (just wait until quantum computing hits full stride). 3D printing. Cell phones. 

But what about life-saving innovations? Think gene editing. Or nanotechnology–the search-and-destroy capability of nanoparticles to find tumors and deliver targeted therapies. 

Of all the medical innovations throughout history, perhaps none has saved more lives than the blood bank. For that, we have Dr. Charles Richard Drew to thank. 

Why do blood banks matter? 
  • Just one pint of blood saves the lives of 3 people
  • Every 2 seconds, an American requires blood and/or platelets 
  • One car-crash victim could need up to 100 units of blood
The story of Dr. Charles Richard Drew

He was born into a middle class African American family in Washington, DC on June 3, 1904. He died in a tragic car accident in March of 1950. In the 46 years he had, his accomplishments are astounding. 

At a time when education opportunities for black children were hard to come by, he graduated high school at 14. In part due to his athletic skills, he landed a scholarship at Amherst College in Massachusetts where he won two top honors–the Howard Hill Mossman Trophy, for bringing the college the most honor in athletics, and the Thomas W Ashley trophy, as the football team’s MVP. 

He was one of only 16 African Americans to graduate from college during the entire 1920s.

As an African American, his options for medical school in the U.S. were limited to 2: Harvard or Howard. His application to Howard lacked undergraduate requirements. He was accepted to Harvard but waitlisted. Impatient to get started, he wound up going to McGill University in Montreal, Canada where he graduated with a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery in 1933. 

Soon after, he began work studying blood storage and distribution as a Rockefeller Fellow at Columbia University’s Presbyterian Hospital, New York. His dissertation? Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation. His education and accomplishments couldn’t have been more timely. WWII created a need for donated blood on an unmatched scale. He was selected to head up the Blood for Britain campaign by the U.S. government, which no doubt saved countless lives.

Because of his work, he is known as the Father of the Blood Bank–a healthcare innovation that saves 4.5 million lives EVERY YEAR.

There are individuals who will achieve great things no matter the barriers put in their way. We call them exceptional people. Imagine how many more Dr. Charles Richard Drews we would celebrate this month if racism and inequality did not exist. All those who encountered one barrier too many despite their talents and abilities. Rather than the exception, celebrating African American achievements would be the rule.   

In recognition

During his lifetime, Dr. Charles Drew was recognized for his contributions to medicine and education with multiple awards–most notably the NAACP’s 1944 Spingarn Medal. In recent times his name has appeared on several public sites and institutions, including the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California. The United States Postal Service issued a first-class postage stamp in his honor in 1981.

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