Charles Drew Lived Here

The "father of the blood bank" grew up in Arlington. And his legacy is lasting.

During World War II, Drew’s groundbreaking technique for processing and storing blood plasma would save thousands of British and American lives. As medical supervisor of the “Blood for Britain” project, he oversaw the collection of some 14,500 pints of plasma, according to some reports.

In 1941, Drew was appointed medical director of the American Red Cross, where he established the first modern blood bank and bloodmobiles, forever earning him the distinction “the father of the blood bank.” But the magnitude of his influence was tinged with irony: Drew himself could not give blood, due to rules set by the U.S. Armed Services that initially forbade African Americans from donating blood through the Red Cross.

 

An oil portrait of the doctor by Betsy Graves Reyneau (now part of the National Portrait Gallery collection). National Archives and Records Administration 559199

Though protests soon forced a change that allowed them to donate, the Red Cross maintained a practice of segregating blood donations from whites and blacks. Outraged, Drew resigned from his post after only a few months, chastising the policy as scientifically baseless. “In the laboratory I have found that you and I share a common blood,” he exclaimed, “but will we ever share a common brotherhood?” Another nine years would pass before the Red Cross abandoned the policy.

 

Charles Drew (wearing a hat and lab coat) participates in a practice “air raid” drill in Washington, D.C. during World War II. National Archives and Records Administration 535826

It was past midnight on April 1, 1950, when Drew and three Howard University colleagues embarked on an annual road trip to Tuskegee, Alabama, to help at a free clinic. For African Americans, a late-night drive in the segregated South was anything but comfortable. There were few safe places to stop for food or rest, and the threat of prejudicial violence was real. Reluctant to stop, Drew drove through the night. In the early morning, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed.

He died hours later at a nearby hospital at the young age of 46, leaving behind his wife, Minnie, and four children. A long-standing myth holds that doctors at the hospital refused to treat Drew. Jarvis dispels that story as false, but she notes that racism did play a role in her father’s death: “The truth of the matter is that he would not have been driving all night if there were places for them along the Southern route to go to a hotel.”

Categories: Local History
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