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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Charles Drew

Charles Drew -- African American physician and surgeon

Pioneered blood transfusion and established the American Red Cross blood bank

Although a good student while growing up in Washington, DC, Charles Drew -- the noted physician and surgeon who would later make history as a pioneer in the preservation of human blood for blood transfusion -- first showed great promise as an athlete.  The oldest son of a carpet layer, Charles won several medals for swimming in his elementary years, and later branched out to football, basketball and other sports. He later went on to Amherst College on a sports scholarship. But upon completing Amherst, he soon realized that it was medical school that he really wanted, and that opportunity came when he was accepted and enrolled at  McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Later during his medical internship and residency training in Montreal he began exploring the problems and issues related to blood transfusion.

Why He's Important: Charles Drew's system for the storing of blood plasma (the clear yellowish fluid component of blood that is without cells) revolutionized the medical profession and paved the way for modern day blood banks that have saved countless numbers of lives. While pursuing his Ph.D in the late 1930s at Columbia University, he found that by separating the liquid red blood cells from the near-solid plasma and freezing the two separately, that blood could be preserved and reconstituted at a later date. This later led him to establish the American Red Cross blood bank, of which he was the first director, and to organize the world's first blood bank drive, nicknamed "Blood for Britain", which supplied blood plasma to the British during World War II.

Other Achievements: During World War II he also began directing efforts by the American Red Cross to set up blood donor stations to collect plasma for the U.S. Armed Forces. But he soon resigned these duties when the U.S. War Department announced that blood taken from white donors should not be mixed with blood taken from black donors. Charles and other medical professionals rightly condemned this ruling as not only scientifically unfounded, but racist.

Education: He received his undergraduate degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts, his M.D. and Master of Surgery degrees from McGill University, and his doctorate degree in Science in Medicine from Columbia University, becoming the first African American to earn that degree there.

In His Own Words: "The blood of individual human beings may differ by blood groupings, but there is absolutely no scientific basis to indicate any difference in human blood from race to race." Charles Drew died in 1950 from injuries sustained in an auto accident while en route to a medical meeting.