Skip To Content

Dr. Charles Drew's pioneering contributions to a safe and ready blood supply continue to save lives today. Drew discovered how to safely collect and store blood for long periods of time and apply those principles on a nationwide scale.

While a medical student at McGill University in Canada, Dr. Charles Drew participated in research on blood transfusions and how they could help patients in shock. This exposure sparked an interest in blood transfusions that he would later pursue in earnest, and his research led to innovations that made it easier and safer for blood to be collected, stored and transfused.

Dr. Drew’s discoveries were groundbreaking, which is why he is considered the father of the modern blood bank and someone we celebrate during Black History Month, and year-round, for his significant contributions to the world. 

Educational Background

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1904, Charles Drew was an outstanding athlete in high school and attended Amherst College in Massachusetts on athletic scholarships. He also was interested in education and medicine, and his first job after college was as a biology professor at Morgan College in Baltimore. 

Drew decided to pursue his medical degree at McGill because, at the time, medical schools in Canada had fewer restrictions regarding the admission of Black students. After obtaining his degree, he returned to the U.S. and became an instructor at Howard University. Drew then pursued his Doctor of Medical Science degree at Columbia University’s Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

While at Columbia, Drew began his own research on blood and transfusions. His doctoral dissertation, "Banked Blood: A Study on Blood Preservation” was based on seven months studying blood preservation techniques. 

Drew was able to set up an experimental blood bank at Presbyterian Hospital. There, he not only figured out a way to store and preserve blood plasma for longer periods of time but also determined the various aspects of creating a successful blood bank including: creating a sterile collection environment, testing blood for diseases, recruiting and screening of donors, and training of collection staff.

Blood for Britain Program

During World War II, Drew was asked to develop and lead the Blood for Britain program, a U.S. effort to send blood plasma overseas to help wounded soldiers and civilians. This involved ratcheting up his blood banking ideas on a much larger and complex scale. The program was deemed a success.

This led to a national blood banking pilot program, for which Drew briefly served as assistant director. He also came up with the concept of bloodmobiles during this time. Drew protested racist policies that existed in some places, which refused blood donations from Blacks or segregated their donations, pointing out they had no basis in science. This practice ended around 1950.

A Lasting Legacy

Dr. Drew continued his distinguished research and teaching career but unfortunately died following an auto accident when he was only 45. His legacy lives on in the many lives that have been saved because of his work on blood banking. 

Drew’s accomplishments were especially notable because they came during a time when segregation or exclusion of Blacks from many aspects of society was the norm. He was the first Black person to receive a doctorate at Columbia and the first Black surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery, among his many accolades. He also trained future surgeons as chair of the Department of Surgery and chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital at Howard University.

Blog sources: