Pioneer of Plasma in honor of Black History Month

Dr. Charles Drew, who would become not only a pioneer of the plasma industry but one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, was born on June 3, 1904, in Washington, D.C. Drew spent his childhood in D.C. with his parents and four siblings. He excelled in athletics and received a scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts for football and track and field. In 1922, Amherst College only had 13 Black students out of a total student body of 600.

During Drew's time at Amherst, a city-wide influenza epidemic broke out back home, which took the life of his sister. Drew sustained a career-ending football injury shortly after. An interest in medicine quickly began to brew. He not only continued to foster this new interest but built a life pursuing it, choosing to further his education at McGill University and Columbia University and completing his MD, CM (Master of Surgery), and doctorate degrees. In fact, Drew was the very first African American to earn a doctorate at Columbia.

It was during Drew's time at Columbia that he began down the path that would ultimately earn him the name “the father of the blood bank.” He won a fellowship to train at Presbyterian Hospital in New York where he spent his time researching all things blood: fluid balance, transfusion, blood balance, chemistry, and, most importantly, preservation.

Before the 1940s, whole blood was collected for transfusion at the time it was needed. Blood donors were contacted anytime, day or night, to come to a hospital to donate fresh blood for immediate transfusion. Through his research, Drew discovered a method for long-term storage and preservation of blood plasma. His process involved separating blood components using centrifugation, and then pooling the plasma into bottles, all with strict air and ultraviolet lighting conditions to prevent contamination. Finally, he added an anti-bacterial called Merthiolate, and cultures were sampled and tested regularly until the plasma was sealed and packed for shipment in a diluted saline solution.

Developing this technique set Drew up to lead the Blood for Britain Project (BFB) because of the desperate need Great Britain had for plasma after being attacked by Germany during World War II. BFB collected blood from different hospitals around the United States, extracted plasma into 1 litre bottles over 6 months in 1941 and sent to Britain. Plasma was useful in this setting because it can be used on any blood type. It does not require a “match” to the recipient and is less limited than whole blood in its various forms of administration. Throughout the campaign, supervised by Drew, 14,500 pints of plasma were successfully sent to Great Britain. During this time, Drew also organized America’s first large-scale blood bank, as well as the first blood-mobiles. Both are still used today and account for a significant percentage of blood collected and stored in the United States. 

Unfortunately, at the time, Black people were still excluded from donating blood themselves. This infuriated Drew as he himself was ineligible, despite the fact that he created the very program he was being rejected from. Ultimately, this exclusion led him to resign from his role as the first medical director at the American Red Cross. He took a position as chief surgeon at Howard University instead. There, he not only campaigned for better treatment of Black doctors but played a role in training the next generation of Black physicians himself.

Drew was elected Fellow of the International College of Surgeons in 1946 and served as a consultant to the Surgeon General in 1949 before he tragically died in a car accident while driving to a conference. At just 45 years of age, he left behind his wife, Minnie, their three daughters, and one son. His legacy lives on, however. In 2015, 65 years after his death, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his life-changing achievements in science and medicine.

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