Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 154:
CHARLES RICHARD DREW

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 154.

Today, an interesting tale about blood. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Charles Richard Drew was born in 1904 in a black neighborhood in the so-called Foggy Bottom area of Washington, D.C. His intellectual and athletic abilities were soon evident. He went to Amherst College on scholarship in 1922 and served as both captain of the track team and football quarterback.

At the time, even in the North, most public institutions were still segregated. Drew was a campus hero, but he couldn't belong to most honor societies. He lived in a tough world, and his career plans made it tougher. He wanted to go to medical school. His bachelor's degree had left him in debt, so he took a job as athletic director and chemistry teacher at Morgan College -- a small black school in Baltimore. Two years later he was able to enter medical school at McGill University in Canada.

He finished his internship, and a residency in surgery, in 1935. But all the time another interest had been welling up. He wanted to solve the problem of preserving blood for transfusions. He spent three years teaching at Howard Medical School and then went to Columbia University to do his Ph.D. on blood storage.

He finished a thesis, titled Banked Blood, in 1940. It was a monumental work. He was now the world expert in preserving human blood. He'd developed the notion of separating and storing plasma to the point that it was a practical reality. And this was the first doctorate Columbia ever awarded to a black.

As a result of his work, the R.A.F. and the American Red Cross asked Drew to take charge of a program to make blood available for soldiers in Europe. And Drew did just that. His superb leadership transmuted research into an effective program of blood collection, storage, and distribution.

Then the Armed Forces gave in to pressures and ordered that only Caucasian blood would be given to American soldiers. Drew called a press conference to point out what every educated person knew -- that black and white blood were quite indistinguishable. He resigned as director of the blood program, and he left blood plasma work. He went back to Howard to teach surgery. After nine years of distinguished work, he and three interns set off one night for a meeting two days later at Tuskegee Institute. Drew dozed at the wheel and crashed. The steering wheel crushed his chest, and he died within an hour.

According to a widely-told story, he died because he was denied a transfusion at a white hospital. Not so. Medics at the scene knew who this great surgeon was. They would have bent any such rules to save him. The story survives, not because it was true, but because, in 1950, such a thing could have been true.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Hayden, R.C., Black American Inventors. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1972.

Wynes, C. E., Charles Richard Drew: The Man and the Myth. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, c. 1988.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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