If you’ve ever seen one of our Red Cross bloodmobiles, you can thank blood banking pioneer, Dr. Charles R. Drew. As the first Medical Director of the American Red Cross Blood Services, Dr. Drew expanded Red Cross blood banks across the country by creating mobile blood donation stations to help collect and transport donations more efficiently. He also broke racial barriers in the medical and scientific community to pave the way for lifesaving procedures.; specifically with his groundbreaking plasma research which helped save thousands of lives on the battlefield during World War II and continues to be used today.
To celebrate his life and legacy, we sat down with his youngest daughter Dr. Sylvia Drew Ivie in a recent Facebook Live conversation to learn more about her father and address common misconceptions about his life.
Who was Dr. Charles R. Drew?
“He believed that excellence in performance would overcome any artificial barriers established by men and women,” said Dr. Drew Ivie. “It was an innocent belief because we know that’s not really the way it’s worked out in this country. There’s lots of excellence in communities of color and communities that are beset with poverty. They don’t always get the chance and the opportunity.
His belief in that was a benefit to us all because he was excellent and he had an excellent partnership with physicians at Columbia University, which was his alma mater. Together, they developed processes that still serve us to this day, in separating plasma from red blood cells.
I can’t help but be grateful for his father and his mother. His father was a carpet layer and his mother was a homemaker with five children. I think people have to embrace the opportunities they’re given. We’re all in it together. We all have something to share, something to try hard to do that will benefit others. I’m glad he’s in that circle of people who are trying to give.”
How is Dr. Drew’s plasma research still being used?
Dr. Drew’s research and work with storage and preservation of blood and plasma is still used today. Its impact was seen most recently when convalescent plasma was collected from patients who recovered from COVID-19 and transfused to critically ill patients battling the virus prior to vaccines being made available.
Dr. Drew’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia University Medical School was entitled “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation.” He spent years compiling research on storing blood by experimenting with blood plasma and found it could be given to anyone regardless of blood type and stored for a month and even years if frozen or dried.
“His research had to do with the process of collecting plasma so that you have quantity and making sure that it’s sterile, said Dr. Drew Ivie. “His doctoral thesis at Columbia University is still the process that’s used today. It’s the process and organization of collecting, storing and sending out plasma.”
Tell us more Dr. Drew’s career at the Red Cross and why he ultimately left the organization?
Dr. Drew’s remarkable leadership started with the Blood for Britain program, when Great Britain requested dried plasma for transfusions during World War II. Using his research and plasma storing knowledge, Dr. Drew organized blood drives in New York hospitals to meet Britain’s need for plasma. Within five months, he successfully collected thousands of blood donations, ensuring Britain received an essential and healthy supply. This success and leadership drew the attention of the Red Cross, where in turn, he was asked and then named the medical director of the Red Cross’ first National Blood Collection Program in February 1941.
“World War II came about and the Red Cross wanted to set up a collection project of blood to send to the soldiers who were in battle,” said Dr. Drew Ivie. “They asked him to head that project. The United States Navy had a policy of blood being segregated by race and the Red Cross asked him to segregate the blood he was collecting by race. During discussions with them, he shared that it was a wrong approach from his perspective, and there was no difference justifying separation by race.
The Red Cross agreed and he collected blood from both communities. They did ask him to label it, however, and it was labeled, but it was collected. So, it was sort of a compromise between the organizers and what he was doing. But when the project ended of sending blood over to Europe, he wanted to go back to Washington to be with his wife – my mom and their new baby. That’s why he left. It wasn’t in protest of the Red Cross. The Red Cross had done something extraordinary, in inviting an African American physician to head something as important, as vital, as collecting blood for soldiers at the war front.”
After resigning from the Red Cross, Dr. Drew returned to Howard University to lecture and train Black students to become surgeons. In addition to teaching and preparing his students for American Board certification, he also advocated for Black doctors to be admitted into the American Medical Association (AMA) because at the time, the organization had never admitted a Black doctor into its organization. He later toured Europe as a surgical consultant to the U.S. Army.
What were the circumstances surrounding Dr. Drew’s untimely death?
“One of his character flaws was, that he never admitted he was tired. He was just one of those Energizer Bunnies who went on and on and on,” said Dr. Drew Ivie.
On March 31, 1950, he had performed several operations at Freedmen’s Hospital and completed a speaking engagement before leaving his wife and children to travel to a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama with three other doctors.
“He and several physicians were going down to a free medical clinic that happened every year in Alabama,” continues Dr. Drew Ivie. “They were driving and as you know blacks weren’t admitted to hotels or motels in those days, so they couldn’t stop and rest. They just had to try to keep driving. He was driving and the others were sound asleep. A while after, he dozed off and he woke up with a start and pulled the wheel over as hard as he could to get out of the ditch that he’d gone in on the road. In the process, the car, which was a great big, heavy 1940-something turned over two times.
The other three were thrown out because none of them had seat belts. But his foot was under the accelerator, so he wasn’t thrown out. The heavy car crushed him and he lost a huge amount of blood. The doctors were able to get him to a hospital. They did give him blood, but he was too severely injured to survive. Now, at the same time that happened to my father, there was a Black veteran in the same state in North Carolina, who went to a white hospital after suffering a serious injury. They took Black patients, but they had a quota and the quota had been reached before he went to the emergency room, so he died. He didn’t get the blood that he needed, and many people believe that those two stories co-mingled somehow.
People don’t know the name of that soldier, but they know the name of Charles Drew. Because of his blood work and they think it’s a poetic irony that someone who made such contribution in blood storage and innovation should die of lack of blood. It’s a powerful story but it just doesn’t happen to be true. And its hard to get people to give up the story because it speaks to the real pain segregation caused in this country. “
What do you think is Dr. Drew’s legacy?
“When he was at Columbia, there were almost no Black surgeons,” said Dr. Drew Ivie. “At Charles R. Drew University, where I work, it’s been our dream to train physicians and nurses and science experts, public health experts who were interested in service in underserved communities. To do that, in a university named for him, would just be astonishing to him to have that great honor. Training surgeons was something that galvanized him most deeply. He wanted to grow a cadre of excellent Black surgeons. Those people he trained became the head of surgery departments in hospitals throughout the South. So, that’s a great legacy. We talk about his blood work and the blood plasma, but I think his teaching was equally important as his legacy.”
Throughout his life, Dr. Drew overcame many racial barriers to become who he was in the blood banking industry and achieve the groundbreaking research that is still used today. Even after his life, he forged a path for many Black students and doctors. Nearly two years after his death, the Washington, DC chapter of the AMA began to accept Black doctors. His legacy continued to inspire many until the AMA ended its policy of racial discrimination 18 years after his death.
Learn more about Dr. Drew
Dr. Charles R. Drew was a trailblazer and played a pivotal role in helping the Red Cross become the organization that it is today. His revolutionary work has helped save thousands of lives throughout history and continues to impact patients and blood recipients today. We’re honored to have one of his daughters speak about his legacy. To hear more stories from Dr. Drew Ivie, click here.