Canada’s Black Walk Of Fame: Dr. Charles R. Drew
By Ashlie Bienvenu
For our next inductee into the Black Walk of Fame, we look to someone who, while not born in Canada, gained the inspiration for his ground-breaking blood plasma discoveries at Montreal’s own McGill University. The story of his never ending determination in the face of adversity, and his fight for racial equality in the medical field, are truly awe-inspiring. This man surely deserves recognition, not only for his innovative medical discoveries, but also for his activism in the field of racial equality.
Charles Drew was born in Washington, D.C., in the year 1904. Even as a child he was hardworking, driven and goal oriented. These characteristics would later help him in his pursuit of education, in a field that did not admit many Black figures. While Drew ended up entering the medical field, he began his education with a focus toward sports. In his high school, Drew lettered in four different sports and was given the James E. Walker Medal for excellence in sports. Drew later went on to Amherst College, with an athletic scholarship, and received a reputation as a legendary athlete that brought his school to numerous victories. However, it was during this time that he developed his interest in medicine through his biology classes, his football injuries, and the death of his sister from tuberculosis. Drew graduated from Amherst in 1926 and began to move forward with his vision of medical school. Drew never gave up his sports, in fact, he turned many of his schools’ sports teams into champions; but, his new focus became medical school.
Drew, as a Black man, in a pre-Civil Rights Movement society, did not have many options in the racially segregated academics. Receiving an education in medicine was even harder, as many patients would have refused the services of a Black doctor. This did not stop Drew, however, and, when he was made to wait a year to get into Harvard, he decided to apply to McGill, which had a reputation for better treatment of racial minorities. While at McGill, Drew became a star athlete and student. He graduated second in a class of 137 students and won numerous prizes and fellowships in his time there. Drew finished off his time in Montreal by completing his residency at Montreal General Hospital, alongside Professor John Beattie, a bacteriologist who was working to treat shock patients with blood transfusions. It was during this time that Drew formed his interest in transfusion medicine. During his time at Montreal General, 1933-1935, Drew experienced a hospital fire, with many casualties. At the time, if someone needed a transfusion, they needed to find a donor on short notice, as there was no way to preserve blood for more than a few days. Therefore, a lot of the patients, during this fire, died without access to transfusions. This experience would later influence his research on blood preservation and blood banks.
Drew later decided to move back to the United States to teach medicine. With limited spaces available for Black men he was restricted to a position at Howard University. Drew would later push against these boundaries by continuing to rise in academia, as well as working to create a more tolerant environment for Black medical students. During Drew’s surgical residency at Columbia University, where he was the first Black man to do so, he specialized in research on fluid chemistry, alongside Dr. John Scudder. The focus of his research centered on how to “bank” blood, or preserve it. Drew and Scudder set up their research in Presbyterian Hospital, in 1939, where they set up an experimental blood bank. During this experiment, Drew and Scudder researched the best variables and conditions that would allow the blood to last longer. They eventually found, along with other researchers, that when blood plasma is separated from the blood it lasts longer and is more easily preserved. This discovery came in handy during the course of World War II, especially in Britain, which had been hit hard by the Germans.
During World War II, the American Red Cross Association and the National Research Council (NRC) got together to create a relief program for Britain, called “Blood for Britain”. Drew and Scudder joined the NRC’s Committee on Transfusions. Drew was later asked by the Blood Transfusion Betterment Association (BTBA) to take a more active role and lead the initiative for Britain, as the medical supervisor. Drew was credited with creating a standardized system for quality transfusion preservation methods. It was through his leadership that the program became a success. However, Drew eventually gave up his position due to the Red Cross’s segregated blood transfusion policy. Instead, he went on to become the Chair for the Department of Surgery for Howard University and train young Black surgeons to propel them to excellence.
Therefore, Dr. Charles Drew leaves a lasting legacy on the world. He revolutionized the system of blood transfusions, trained more than half of America’s Black surgeons between 1941 and 1950, and had an impact on the preservation of lives during the Second World War. Many people are alive today due to discoveries that were made by Dr. Charles Drew, and it is thanks to him that we have a large-scale blood bank system today.
The Charles R. Drew Papers. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/retrieve/Narrative/BG/p-nid/336
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