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THE RELIGION CORNER: Charles Drew — A Black History Month Tribute

Last Friday, former D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, my mentor, was my radio show guest. She began her illustrious career following in her father’s footsteps. Graduating with her doctorate in neuropsychology, or the study of the brain, she had a delightful and promising job at the NIH. However, she felt a call upon her life to help her city, following the murder of Dr. King. Our city was broken, she answered the call and served 21 years admirably.

When Dr. Jarvis shared about her father, Dr. Charles R. Drew, I knew my chance to share a bit of his story was now. A pioneering African American medical researcher, Charles Drew made some groundbreaking discoveries in the storage and processing of blood for transfusions. He also managed two large blood banks during World War II.

Growing up in D.C. as the son of a carpet installer, Drew graduated from Dunbar High School in 1922, and his athletic abilities in track and football afforded him the opportunity to attend Amherst College on a sports scholarship.

He earned his bachelor’s degree at Amherst in 1926, but didn’t have enough money to pursue his dream of attending medical school just yet. Working as a biology instructor and coach at present-day Morgan State University in Baltimore, he applied to medical schools and enrolled at McGill University in Montreal.

He was a top student, won a prize in neuroanatomy, and became a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha, a medical honor society. Graduating second in his class in 1933, he went on to earn his Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees.

Completing his internship and residency, he then studied with Dr. John Beattie, and they examined problems and issues regarding blood transfusions.

Following his father’s death, Drew returned to the U.S. and became an instructor at Howard University’s medical school. He did a surgery residence at Freedmen’s Hospital in D.C., in addition to his work at Howard.

In 1938, Drew received a Rockefeller Fellowship to study at Columbia University and train at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Continuing his exploration of blood-related matters with John Scudder, Drew developed a method for processing and preserving blood plasma, blood without cells. Plasma lasts much longer than whole blood, making it possible to be stored or “banked” for longer periods of time. He discovered that the plasma could be dried and then reconstituted when needed.

His research served as the basis of his doctorate thesis, “Banked Blood,” and he received his doctorate degree in 1940. Drew became the first African American to earn this degree from Columbia.

As World War II raged in Europe, Drew was asked to head up “Blood for Britain.” He organized the collection and processing of blood plasma from several New York hospitals, shipping roughly 14,500 pints of plasma.

Spearheading another blood bank effort in 1941, this time for the American Red Cross, he worked on developing a blood bank to be used for U.S. military personnel. Not long, Drew became frustrated with the military’s request for segregating blood donated by African Americans. At first, the military didn’t want blood from African Americans, but later said it could be used for African American soldiers. Drew was outraged by this racist policy, resigning from his post after only a few months.

After creating two of the first blood banks, Drew returned to Howard University in 1941 to continue as a professor. He became the chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital and eventually became the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery.

Honored with the Spingarn Medal for “the highest and noblest achievement” by the NAACP, in recognition of his blood plasma collection and distribution efforts, it was a first.

For his final years, Dr. Drew remained a highly regarded medical professional. On April 1, 1950, while en route to a medical conference with three other physicians at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Dr. Drew was driving when his vehicle crashed near Burlington, North Carolina. His passengers survived, but Drew succumbed to his injuries. He left behind his wife Minnie and their four children. Drew was only 45 years old at the time of his death.

Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email lyndiagrantshowdc@gmail.com or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.

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Lyndia Grant

A seasoned radio talk show host, national newspaper columnist, and major special events manager, Lyndia is a change agent. Those who experience hearing messages by this powerhouse speaker are changed forever!

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