Dr. Charles Drew is known as the Father of Blood Banking. He’s credited with saving thousands of lives during World War II after coming up with the concept of the blood bank but he resigned after a ruling that the blood of African Americans would be segregated.
Drew died in an automobile accident in April of 1950. To this day, some believe the story that this pioneer in the blood banking industry was denied admittance to a local hospital after the accident because he was Black. But is it true?
To answer that question and many others about Dr. Charles Drew, contributor Juan Cotto got a chance to talk to Drew’s daughter, Sylvia Drew Ivie, the Special Assistant to the President at Charles Drew University in Los Angeles.
So on this episode of Bloodworks 101 we attempt to separate the man from the myth, and celebrate a true pioneer in blood science whose legacy endures today. The transcript of this episode can be found below.
Sylvia: Well, he was just a person who had enormous curiosity, enormous energy, and a heart for the community. He was tireless.
John: This is “Bloodworks 101” and I’m John Yeager. In this episode, you’ll hear the story of a man of enormous energy with a heart for his community, Dr. Charles Drew. An African American physician who developed ways to process and store blood plasma in something called a blood bank. He’s credited with creating some of the first blood banks in America and for advancing the cause of a more inclusive blood supply. In fact, he’s known as the father of blood banking.
Dr. Drew directed the blood plasma programs of the United States and Great Britain in world war II. He’s credited with saving thousands of lives during that war, but he resigned after a ruling that the blood of African Americans would be segregated. He died on April 1st, 1950 in an automobile accident. Now there’s a long-standing story about that accident. Some say this pioneer in the blood banking industry was denied admittance to a local hospital after the accident because he was black. It’s the kind of story right out of Hollywood, but is it true?
Well, to answer that question and many others about Dr. Charles Drew, my colleague, and “Bloodworks 101” contributing editor, Juan Cotto got a chance to talk to Charles Drew’s daughter, Sylvia Drew Ivy, the special assistant to the President at Charles Drew University in Los Angeles.
Juan: Ms. Ivy, pleasure to meet you.
Sylvia: Very nice to meet you. Thank you for having me.
Juan: Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. And I would first like to ask you, could you tell us a little bit about your father?
Sylvia: Yes. Well, my father was a physician, and before he was a physician he was a high school student interested in being an engineer. And so I often think that his interest in engineering helped him decide to become a surgeon in his work. But before he became a surgeon practicing at Freedmen’s hospital in Washington, D.C., which is the only standing hospital left over from the civil war when hospitals were set up for slaves who were freed. And there were a large number of those hospitals set up and they’ve all gone, but Freedmen’s was the last one standing. And it was affiliated with Howard University School of Medicine, so he trained physicians at the Howard University School of Medicine.
But on his way to that work, which was the work that he loved the most, which was training students, creating a cadre of excellence among black surgeons, which we did not have a cadre of board-certified black surgeons, and he trained half of the black surgeons in the country before he died a very young death at age 45.
He started out, he went to McGill Medical School because they didn’t admit blacks in the day that he was applying to medical schools. Harvard University did admit him but wait-listed him. And McGill accepted him and he went there and he was interested in blood, even as a student in medical school. I believe he was interested in blood because everybody has the same yellow and red blood. We don’t have green or orange or, you know, white blood or black blood. We all have yellow plasma and red hemoglobin cells. That’s all we have. And I think that was his way of saying, “Human beings are the same. We’re constructed the same way in the life fluid without which we all die.”
And the fact that life fluid, when lost, can create shock and kill you was a matter of great interest to him. So even as a student, he was concerned about that. “How do we make this wonderful life fluid available to everyone when they need it?” Well, then World War II came along and created a need for just this person and just this area of interest. And he started an effort to separate the yellow plasma from the red, and to figure out a way to do that in volume, to dry it and store it so that it was sterile, and so it could be shipped to soldiers overseas. So he became the man of the hour during World War II.
But he had a trial run when he was in Canada. He had an internship in a hospital there. There was a fire on the ward. Many of the people on the ward were burned, a number of them very badly burned. When you’re in a fire, you lose fluids. How do you replace the fluids so they don’t die? How do you do it at a time when it’s an emergency, you don’t have the time to do blood type? He said, “They’ll have plasma,” and he gave them plasma and he saved all their lives, okay?
So that was a trial run for what was going on in World War II in the European theater before we even got there. But there was a Dr. Beattie who had been in Canada and knew about his work at McGill and wrote to him. After he left medical school in Canada, he went to Columbia University and studied for a doctorate in science, the first black to get that. And Dr. Beattie wrote to him and said, “Please send us 5,000 ampules of plasma for the soldiers.” And he said, “well, there’re not 5,000 ampules anywhere, but we will send you plasma.” So he invented the refrigerated truck to go out and collect blood in the community.
And with that collected blood, he spun it down, dried it, and sent it off to Dr. Beattie. The Red Cross, seeing what he was doing, made him head of the Blood for Britain project. And then he did that with a whole fleet of people. And, ultimately, he decided after those kinds of heroic measures, to leave and go back to Howard. So there’s a story about him that he left in anger because Red Cross said…first, they said, “Don’t collect blood from blacks. Only collect from whites.” And second, he said, “Well, there’s no scientific reason for that.” And they said, “Okay, collect it, but you have to label it.” So he had to yield to the labeling part, which, of course, he objected to. He said, “There’s just really no reason to do that.” But there’s no documentation that says he left the Red Cross because of those bad experiences. I think he left because he wanted to be with his family.
So that’s a little bit history of Charles Drew. He died 1950 driving to a free clinic in Alabama, which they did every year. And he drove because he had three residents who were very poor and they couldn’t fly. They couldn’t afford, you know, airfare. And it was a long drive because they couldn’t stop in any motel because we couldn’t go to motels. We weren’t admitted as blacks. And the other three were asleep and he was driving and he fell asleep and when he pulled the wheel to try to get out of the side ditch that he had run into when he fell asleep and it caused the car to turn over. And the other three were thrown out, but his foot was caught under the accelerator, so he wasn’t thrown out. And when it rolled over it crushed him.
He was taken to a white hospital. He was provided all the care that they could give, but he was just too badly injured. There’s a myth that he was denied blood because of blood plasma. That’s not true. There was a black man at Duke who had been in a car accident around the same time. Duke had a limited willingness to see black patients. They had reached their quota by the time this soldier got there, and so they wouldn’t let him in and he died. That story of that soldier and my father’s death got conflated, and then people took that story and said, “This is what it’s like to be black in America. You invent a way to separate blood and preserve it, blood plasma and preserve it and save countless lives, and then when you need it, they don’t give it to you.” Well, it’s a very poignant story. It doesn’t happen to be true, but it does carry the pain that we are carrying as African Americans in this country. So that myth will never die.
Juan: Your father’s legacy as an innovative leader, and one that obviously is being carried forward by the mission of the Drew University. Can you speak a little bit to his legacy and leadership in innovation in science?
Sylvia: Well, he was just a person who had enormous curiosity, enormous energy, and a heart for the community. He was tireless. He didn’t know how to say, “That’s enough for today or tomorrow or this year.” He just was dedicated to service, dedicated to bringing the community up, working together. He was an athlete in high school and in college, and he was always the captain of the team because he was just a born leader. He was just a born leader. And thankfully for all of us, his energy was peaked by this issue of blood. He was interested in blood.
He did have a sister, Elsie. He came from a family of five and she was the eldest, and Elsie died of the flu in 1914, and it broke his heart, broke his parent’s heart. And he never really got over Elsie’s loss. I think that may be the reason. His sister says that’s the reason he went into medicine. I’m not sure who inspired him to look at blood as the issue that he wanted to research, but as I say, I think that was his way of being a race man. He had a friend and colleague, Montague Cobb who became head of the NMA and was very political and, you know, sometimes you just have to get a bat and come out swinging. Well, my father would never have said it like that, but in his heart, he wanted to get a scientific bat and come out swinging, you know? Let the science speak for itself, demonstrate it, show it, save people’s lives with it.
Juan: Charles Drew University, it really is now educating a whole new generation of people to the legacy of Dr. Charles Drew and the innovation in science, medicine, and research. And I was just wondering if you could tell us a little about the mission of Charles Drew University and the impact that it’s having, creating pathways for this younger generation, especially for students of color who are interested in pursuing those pathways in these particular fields.
Sylvia: Yeah. Well, the school was founded as a result of a community revolt in 1965. The Watts community was like a “donut hole of neglect” in Los Angeles, you know, no Beverly Hills for us. Everything here was neglect. We had no grocery stores, we had no jobs, we had no hospital, we had no training ground for health professionals. We just didn’t have. The list was extremely long, and the people were suffering. People were suffering and they revolted. And we had the Watts revolt 1965 and a state commission was set up by Governor Edmund Brown, and they looked at it, and they were shocked really at the picture of what was going on in this community. And they said, “We need many things to provide equity for people in South LA, and among those things is a hospital and a medical school for training positions so that they can keep your skills up going on.”
So with that, we were founded as the post-graduate medical training center. We have 13 residency training programs at Martin Luther King hospital. Most medical schools start bottom-up. We started top-down with residency and worked down. So now we have the traditional undergraduate MD program. And we also have a very large nursing school. We have a physician assistant program, we have an undergraduate training program, and we’re 1,000 students now. We started with 26. So it’s really grown in 52 years and we are the most diverse four-year college in the country in terms of faculty, and we’re the second most diverse four-year college in the country in student diversity.
We have large numbers of African American, Latinx, Asian-Pacific Islander, and other students from across the world. So we’re really quite a jewel, quite an exceptional jewel. We used to be hidden. We’re not so hidden anymore because more and more people, like your colleagues, are learning about us. And we’re so happy to let people know that you can train people for excellence, but you can also train them for excellence in service of underserved populations.
Juan: Tell us about your father’s legacy, your family legacy, and your perception of that legacy, and also representing it in such a unique way on the campus. And how was that received by students and faculty, and what is the..at times I’m sure, maybe a burden and at times I’m sure it is a unique special gift that you get to carry with that?
Sylvia: Well, I’m a community advocate. Everything that I’ve done in my life in work has been an effort to be of service to community. And I, you know, I’ve had a lot of different opportunities to do that. I was a civil rights lawyer in The NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I was a health lawyer in the National Health Law Program, the legal services entity. I worked for the board of supervisors in Los Angeles County in a government entity. So I’ve worn many different hats in terms of the structures that I’ve worked in, but all with the same goal of upgrade, recognition, respect, and participation of the communities that we’re serving.
So, I’m very much in my father’s mold in that way because he just loved the community. He just loved the community and he loved the people in it, and he would do anything for them. He was entirely selfless. I’m thinking of the time on a Sunday morning, you can imagine a surgeon would have very little time to himself and his family in a public hospital, Freedmen’s hospital in Washington, D.C. But a Sunday morning, the phone rang and one of the people who worked on campus had a son in a baseball game and the ball had hit him in the eye and he was bleeding profusely. And the father was frantic. He said, “Take him to the emergency room and I’ll meet you there in 10 minutes.” And this person became a friend of mine throughout our life after, and he said he was crying and blood was streaming, and the father was hysterical, and my father just sat him down very calmly and cleaned up the blood and said, “I see where the tear is. His eye is all right. I’m going to sew up the tear now and he is going to be fine.”
And so my friend says that the father called the wife and said, “The boy is all right. The boy is all right. He didn’t lose his eye. He didn’t lose his eye.” And it’s just a very sweet story about doing what was needed, doing what was necessary at that moment, not thinking that this is an interruption. This is just where he was needed. This is what he needed to do. And that’s just the way he lived. So he was just kind of a heroic figure, you know? They just watched him, they learned from him and tried to be as important a contributor as he tried to be in his young life.
Juan: In the last 12 months, we have seen such incredible situations develop in our own country in regards to civil rights, diversity, inclusion, especially around issues going to our community with the police. And it’s created… You mentioned the Watts situations in 1960s. And certainly, some of the protests and some of the movement that we’ve seen in the last 12 months is very similar to those times. And just to end our conversation today, I’d just like to get your thoughts in regards to where we are in our country in regards to this ever-evolving conversation and discussion around race, and where we are going to go.
Sylvia: Well, of course, the scenario is ugly and shocking, and horrifying. But I look at the fact that we’re joining arms with our Asian and Latinx brothers and sisters, that this country is gonna have more of us all in the end, then, you know, we’re all in it together.
Juan: And one final question. How can we engage the black community in particular, but minority community to participate in blood donation and increase the number of people of color who are donating blood?
Sylvia: Well, I think they need to think about the example of Charles Drew and what his focus on blood and the symbolic meaning of one blood meant. It’s an ongoing story.
Juan: It’s just an honor to speak with you today. And I wanna thank you so much for your time, and on behalf of our patients in our community, on behalf of our research staff, on behalf of our employees, on behalf of our administration of Bloodworks Northwest, we just really appreciate you taking the time to spend with us today. Thank you.
Sylvia: Thank you for letting me tell my story.
John: What a legacy, what a great story about a real American pioneer in science, better than any Hollywood ending, right? Maybe that’s because Dr. Charles Drew’s story is true. Well, that’s just about it for “Bloodworks 101,” the podcast designed to inspire you to donate either time, money, or blood. I’m your host, John Yeager. See you next time.