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Charles Drew (1904-50)

Charles Drew was an American physician and medical researcher specialising in blood banks. He was inspired by a visit from British surgeon John Beattie (1902-33) to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, from where Drew graduated in medicine and surgery.

In collaborative experiments, Drew demonstrated that liquid plasma could be stored more easily than whole blood and the lack of red blood cells meant that the blood types did not need to be matched. Drew served as medical director for the ‘Blood for Britain’ project, an emergency operation during the Second World War to send liquid plasma to Allied soldiers. Between August 1940 and February 1941 approximately 10,500 units of liquid plasma were shipped to London. Drew’s success led to a request to establish the American Red Cross's first blood bank, a New York City pilot programme that became the model for blood banks all over the United States.

Drew achieved many ‘firsts’ for an African-American. He was the first African-American to be awarded the degree of MD, in 1940, for his thesis on ‘banked blood’, and he was also the first African-American to be appointed examiner to the American Board of Surgery, in 1943.

Drew resigned from the blood bank in 1941, many believe in response to an American military directive stating that blood be sorted on racial lines, and that blood donations from African-Americans would be rejected. He subsequently returned to teaching surgery at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Drew's life was cut short in 1950 when he fell asleep at the wheel of a car and died from injuries sustained in the accident. He had been on his way to the annual free clinic in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he had worked since 1939.

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W F Bynum and H Bynum, Dictionary of Medical Biography (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007)

S Love, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1996)



The liquid component of blood, in which the blood cells are suspended. Plasma makes up around 55 per cent of blood's total volume.