How Dr. Charles Drew Transformed Medicine
For Black History Month, we spoke with Sylvia Drew, the daughter of Dr. Charles Drew, about his legacy
When we think about blood donations today—from iconic “bloodmobiles” to convalescent plasma treatments for COVID-19—many of us don’t realize we have Charles R. Drew, MD, to thank. Dr. Drew was a surgeon and researcher, who overcame racial barriers to advance not only the field of blood donation but also the education of Black surgeons.
It was at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (then called the College of Physicians and Surgeons) that Dr. Drew became the first Black researcher to earn the doctor of medical science degree in 1940. His work at Columbia focused on researching and developing efficient methods for processing and storing blood plasma in large quantities. His expertise in this field was in high demand during WWII, and the Red Cross asked him to serve as medical director of their first National Blood Collection Program in 1941.
After leaving the Red Cross, Dr. Drew turned his energy to training Black surgeons at Howard University, and worked passionately toward that goal until his death in a car accident in 1950.
In order to understand more about his life and legacy, Dr. Drew’s daughter Sylvia Drew Ivie sat down to discuss her father with Columbia’s assistant director of social media, Ashlee Brown.
What do you know about your father's research at Columbia?
Well, my father died when I was six, so most of the information I have came through my mother, who assisted him at Columbia. She was involved with his research on how to best preserve red blood cells. He was not the first who did that, but he was the first to do it in a sterile fashion that could be done in volume. And it happened at wartime, so it was very important work for saving lives.
How did your father's research and work for the Red Cross impact practices that are used today?
Well, part of it is scientific: He was careful enough and hardworking enough to look at all the research that had been done by all of the specialists in blood in order to build on their work.
But there was also a political part: He was a Black man in a country that did not appreciate or respect the gifts of Black scientists. I don't know where he got the courage to say, “I’m going ahead anyway; I don't recognize those barriers.” My father was really not interested in being a civil rights champion. He was interested in being a scientist. The fact that he happened to be African-American was important to him personally, but not important to the work he did, because his work applied universally to people of all colors and nationalities. It was just a tremendous contribution to mankind. And the fact that it was done by a person who came from a minority group that was kept down was really extraordinary at that time in our history.
When working for the Red Cross, Dr. Drew encountered an issue with segregation and blood donations. Could you explain what happened?
As I understand it, the Red Cross told him not to collect blood from Black donors. And my father said: “If that's your rule, then I won't come.” They yielded and said, “Okay, you can collect from Blacks.” So he invented the refrigerated truck that went up to Harlem and said: “This is for the war effort. Please give blood.” And people came and gave blood using this refrigerated truck. When it got back to the laboratory, my father did separate it in the lab, according to Black and White donors; he made that concession. But he got the blood, and of course he treated all the donations the same. So it wasn't a complete stonewalling on his part against their ignorance.
I think it must have been very hard for him to yield that part because the science just didn't support separating donations. But he thought it was very important to be part of the war effort, and this was his contribution.
And it worked out for the good. Let’s talk about the barriers that your father had to overcome to pursue his work. What else did he have to deal with?
Well, when he was going to school in Canada, they didn't have the same prejudice; McGill University welcomed him and celebrated his academic success. He did have a barrier at Amherst College, where he played football. He went to another school to play a game, and they said Black players couldn't eat in the dining room. That was an extremely hurtful experience for all of them.
Beyond blood donations, what were some of the other contributions your father made in the field of medicine?
His contribution was greatest from our perspective as family, as a teacher. He taught surgery at Howard University at Freedmen's Hospital, which was one of the hospitals the U.S. government set up after the Civil War for former slaves. There was a residency training program for research, and my father took those surgeons to his heart, and they became his extended family. He wasn't just a teacher, he was a father figure. My mother said when his students were taking examinations, he would wear a hole in the thigh of his pants because he'd be pacing so hard. And when they passed their boards, he was beyond exhilarated.
When my father died in a car crash in 1950, the students were all lined up at our door to do whatever needed to be done, just like family. His students went on to head departments of surgery all over the South. They were all stars. We all have capacity, but you need good teachers to get your capacity up to the level it can go. And that makes me smile when I think about him.
What would you say is your father's legacy today?
Well, I think his legacy is an example of individual excellence that you can achieve, and that you mustn't let exterior forces get in your way. Once you decide what your goal is, you have to take all the steps that lead to excellence in that endeavor. That was his way.