We Are All Blood Brothers

COMMENTARY: Dr. Charles Drew Showed That Life-Giving Cells Know No Race

Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950)
Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950) (photo: Public domain)

“The truth shall make you free,” Christ proclaimed in the Gospel of John (8:32), thereby offering encouragement and motivation from on high for us to overcome our moral inertia and pursue the truth of things with confidence and determination. The poet A.E. Housman has stated that the pursuit of truth is the “faintest of all human passions,” and Flannery O’Connor has declared that “truth shall make you odd.” The pursuit of truth, then, especially in the face of strong opposition, requires strong character.

Our “man of character” who pursued the truth of things with unremitting dedication is Charles Drew. He is a most worthy candidate to be commemorated for Black History Month. His name, which is inscribed on the walls of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, and his accomplishments in his unceasing opposition to racism, should be even better known than they already are.

Charles Richard Drew was born in 1904 in an interracial neighborhood in the Foggy Bottom area of Washington, D.C. He aspired to become a doctor at age 15 when he watched, helplessly, as his sister died of tuberculosis. He won an athletics scholarship to Amherst College where he excelled in football, as well as in track and field. Ranked among the top five hurdlers in the country, he missed the Olympics by the flip of a coin. He graduated from that school in 1926. Drew later graduated from medical school at McGill University in Montreal in 1933 and from Columbia University in 1940. In 1945 he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from Amherst College. 

His experience as an athlete at Amherst College was an important factor in shaping his character. Although his athletic prowess was celebrated in the school, he was, nevertheless, only one of 13 African American students in a student body of 600. He and several of his Black teammates were sometimes targeted for rough treatment by opposing teams. In addition, they were refused service at restaurants when they played games on the road. Also, he was passed over for football captain in his senior year, though as the team’s top performer, he fully deserved that rank. Fighting racism would be a lifetime preoccupation for Drew. 

While earning his doctorate at Columbia in the late 1930s, he conducted research into the preservation of blood plasma. There, he developed efficient ways of processing and storing large quantities of blood plasma in “blood banks.” He ultimately became known as the “Father of the Blood Bank.” As the leading authority in the field, he organized and directed the blood-plasma programs for the United States and Great Britain in the early years of World War II, while also urging the authorities to stop excluding the blood of African Americans from plasma-supply networks.

Drew learned the truth from his scientific investigations that “blood is blood” and its nature is entirely extrinsic to a person’s race of skin color. Consequently, he knew that there was no scientific basis for segregating blood supplies in hospitals according to race, and, therefore, no scientific reason to oppose the transfusing of blood from a white person to a Black person, or vice versa.

In February 1941, Drew was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank. He helped the Red Cross initiate a national blood program that collected 13.3 million pints of blood for use by the armed forces. His work is estimated to have saved millions of lives. 

His life took a dramatic turn later that year when the War Department sent out a directive stating that blood taken from white donors should be segregated from blood taken from Black donors. He called a press conference to point out the simple, scientifically established truth that blood has no race. Drew sharply criticized the directive and resigned from his post. He then returned to Howard University, where he taught until his death in 1950, two months before his 46th birthday.

Drew gave the world a convincing basis for opposing racism by proving that “blood is blood,” and, therefore, we are all “blood brothers.” Since blood is thicker than color (and certainly vital), the external factors that formed the basis for racism melt away.

Regarding his breakthrough work involving the preservation of blood plasma, he noted, “This has been an enormous impact for not only hospitals, but for Armed Services members in combat, law enforcement officers and firefighters, and the many careers that play a role in keeping our country and communities safe.” Before Drew’s discovery, blood could not be stored for more than two days because of the rapid breakdown of red blood cells. 

Dr. Drew met his demise in an automobile accident. On April 1, 1950, Drew was traveling to the Andrew Memorial Clinic in Tuskegee, Alabama, to deliver a lecture. Accompanying him were three of his resident physicians from Howard. All four passengers were Black. Drew apparently fell asleep while driving. The car ran off the road and rolled over. Drew’s injuries were massive, and the doctors at a hospital, which catered only to white people, could do nothing to save his life, although they gave him, according to the record, “at least one blood transfusion.” Drew’s family later wrote letters to the attending physicians thanking them for their efforts.

A 35-cent United States stamp honoring Dr. Charles R. Drew was issued June 3, 1981, in Washington, D.C., his birthplace. The date coincided with the 77th anniversary of his birth. It serves as a reminder of a truly great man.