28 May 2007

Memorial Day Post: Honoring Charles Drew

It's normal to remember and honor veterans on Memorial Day, but there are others who should also be remembered and honored for their sacrifices and contributions during wartime. Journalists and medics, for example, rarely get the regard they deserve. The families who hid Jews in their homes during the holocaust are another example. And intelligence agents will probably always toil in anonymity.

Today I'd like to call attention to one man who may have saved more soldiers' lives than anyone else; a man whose name most people have probably never heard.

Charles Drew was born in 1904 in Washington, D.C. As a student he distinguished himself academically and athletically, eventually earning an athletic scholarship to Amherst College. After college he went to medical school and then after that he continued postgraduate studies at Columbia, earning a D.Sc. degree in 1940. The title of his dissertation was "Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation".

Drew's timely discovery, on the cusp of WWII, was that blood could be stored and reconstituted if the cells and plasma were separated. At the time, the British were being bombed by the Nazis and were in desperate need for blood. They tried Drew's method, delivering the blood on "bloodmobiles"-- trucks outfitted with refrigeration systems.

It worked, and the U.S. asked him to do the same for the American military as well. He organized the entire system of blood drives, storage, and transfusion. He was appointed director of the Red Cross Blood Bank in NYC.

It's hard to overestimate the number of lives all over the world that were saved-- then as well as now-- because of Charles Drew's work. The most frequent cause of death in war is shock, i.e. loss of blood.

But here's the bitter irony: if Charles Drew himself had needed blood from the blood bank of which he was the director, he would not have received it. Because at the time, the military insisted on separating blood by race. And Charles Drew was black. And blacks weren't allowed to donate blood or receive "white" blood.

Drew railed against the military's unscientific policy and was asked to leave the project. He accepted a position at Howard University (which, ironically, had rejected him for medical school 13 years earlier because he didn't have enough English credits). He continued to be a successful surgeon, researcher, and educator. He died in a car accident in 1950 at the age of 45.

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