Dr. Charles Richard Drew (June 3, 1904 – April 1, 1950) was an 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. He protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood from donors of different races since it lacked scientific foundation. In 1943, Drew's distinction in his profession was recognized when he became the first African American surgeon to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.
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Charles Richard Drew was born on June 3, 1904 in Washington D.C. to Nora and Richard Drew. Drew attended Meads Mill Elementary School, and began working as a paperboy selling copies of the Washington Times and Herald while attending school. Instead, he found work at construction sites. In 1918, he enrolled in Dunbar High School. Dunbar was a segregated high school that had a reputation for being one of the strongest Black public schools in the country. He also was an athlete. Drew’s athleticism won him a partial scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Drew’s sister, Elsie who was ailing with tuberculosis, died of pandemic influenza in 1920. This loss is said to have influenced him to study medicine.
Participation in the "Blood For Britain" project
In 1940, Drew went to New York to direct America’s 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, and uncrowded hospital’s donors could go there 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 5 months and the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association applauded Drew for his fine work.
Death (and urban legend)
Drew, being the chief surgeon, represented Freedmen at a number of medical conferences. Drew had been attending the annual free clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama since 1939. There was a change of plans preceding the 1950 Tuskegee clinic. Drew decided to drive with three other physicians and save money rather than fly. The four men decided to take turns driving in shifts. Drew slept until it was his turn for the 2nd shift. He was tired, because he had spent the night before in the operating theater. Drew started driving at around 8 a.m. on April 1st. A few miles north of the Haw River, the car began to go off the road. One of the physicians noticed this and yelled “Hey Charlie!” Drew had fallen asleep at the wheel, and reacted immediately and tried to veer back onto the road. Instead, the car went into a field and somersaulted three times.
The three physicians other than Drew had suffered minor injuries. Drew had gotten his foot stuck under the brake pedal, which resulted in the car turning over on top of him, instead of jerking him out of the car. Drew was in shock, had a severe leg injury, and was barely alive when the other physicians reached him.
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 Dr. 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 false story of his death was repeated in an episode of the popular television series M*A*S*H.
Drew was taken to Alamance General Hospital in Burlington. He was pronounced dead a half hour after his first reception of medical attention. His funeral procession was held on April 5, 1950, at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. He will always be remembered.