Happy Birthday, Dr. Drew!

It’s hard to understand the work of the American Red Cross without learning where its system came from. The American Red Cross blood program of today is a direct result of Dr. Charles Drew’s groundbreaking work in developing large-scale collection and processing and storage of human blood and plasma products during World War II. Today is his birthday!

1947. Washington, DC. Dr. Charles R. Drew medical director of the first American Red Cross blood bank. Credit Scurlock/NMAH.

Dr. Drew was an African American physician and blood transfusion researcher in the early 20th century. He was a dedicated scientist and educator pioneering in blood collection and plasma processing. He laid the foundation for modern blood banking and revolutionized the medical profession.

In a recent interview with CBS This Morning, Dr. Drew’s daughter says her father felt called into medicine after his sister died in the 1918 Spanish Flu.

In 1938, Drew received a Rockefeller Fellowship to study at Columbia University and train at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. There, he continued his exploration of blood-related matters with John Scudder. Drew developed a method for processing and preserving blood plasma, or blood without cells. Plasma lasts much longer than whole blood, making it possible to be stored or “banked” for longer periods of time. He discovered that the plasma could be dried and then reconstituted when needed. His research served as the basis of his doctorate thesis, “Banked Blood”.

In 1940, Drew received his doctorate degree, becoming the first African American to earn this degree from Columbia. He was also the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery.

September 1940. New York, NY. Dr. Charles R. Drew (left) is shown here with doctors, nurses and drivers from a mobile unit of the New York Presbyterian Hospital. The purpose of this mobile unit, the first of its kind, was to collect blood plasma under the “Plasma for Britain” program. The only other person identified in this photo is Dr. Darrell Shaw (second from right), of the Presbyterian Hospital.

During World War II, the American Red Cross called on Drew to head up a special medical effort known as “Blood for Britain.” As the first medical director of the Red Cross blood bank, he organized the collection and processing of blood plasma from several New York hospitals, and the shipments of these life-saving materials overseas to treat causalities in the war. According to one report, Drew helped collect roughly 14,500 pints of plasma.

The “blood mobiles” you see today were also a creation of Drew’s. His discoveries, and his work in organizing and administering blood banks, continue to save countless lives today.

Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, we’re seeing the experimental procedure that transfers blood plasma from a coronavirus survivor into the bloodstream of a patient still battling the disease is among the most promising treatments amid the pandemic. We can credit Dr. Drew for this, as well.

Written by Hannah Allton, Regional Communications Manager

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