Club History Moment: Hidden Figures of Innovation

Wednesday, February 3, 2021 By: Monica M Smith
Club Historian Monica Smith provides the first of four short weekly history moments focused on “Hidden Figures of Innovation” in honor of Black History Month.

This is the first of four short weekly history moments focused on “Hidden Figures of Innovation” in honor of Black History Month.

Frankly, I could teach a full course on this topic and not even scratch the surface of the rich history of Black contributions to American society, even if I just focused on inventors, scientists, and engineers, who are the primary focus of my professional expertise at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

To hone stories, I decided to focus on Black innovators with ties to the Washington, DC, metro area. Today, I will talk in depth about one scientist about whom you may have heard but most people probably don’t know much about—Dr. Charles Richard Drew.

Dr. Drew, born in Washington, DC, in 1904, was a Black surgeon, professor, and blood transfusion and blood bank pioneer. He was part of a Black middle-class family; his father was a carpet layer and his mother trained as a teacher. Drew grew up in Foggy Bottom, which was then a largely the middle-class and interracial neighborhood, and graduated from local Dunbar High School in 1922.  He lettered in four sports, which helped him receive an athletic scholarship to Amherst College, where he earned a BA in 1926. Upon graduation, he taught science and athletics for two years at Morgan University (an HBCU). Earning enough money to attend medical school, Drew went to Canada, where he obtained a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree from McGill University in 1933.

Dr. Drew's first faculty appointment was to teach pathology at Howard University from 1935 to 1936. He then joined Freedman's Hospital, a Federally-operated facility associated with Howard, as a surgery instructor and assistant surgeon. In 1938, Drew began graduate work at Columbia University thanks to a two-year Rockefeller fellowship in surgery, and wrote a doctoral thesis, "Banked Blood," based on his exhaustive study of blood preservation techniques at Columbia’s Presbyterian Hospital. He earned a Doctor of Science in Medicine degree in 1940, becoming the first African American to do so. Unfortunately, racism as usual raised its ugly head. Drew died without ever being accepted for membership in DC’s chapter of the American Medical Association since they only allowed Whites to join.

Dr. Drew’s important research on blood transfusions and improved techniques for blood plasma storage led to helping develop large-scale blood banks early in World War II. Drew headed a program that sent blood to Great Britain, which saved thousands of lives among the Allied forces. In 1941, Drew’s professional distinction was recognized when he became the first Black surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. A few years later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People honored Drew with its 1943 Spingarn Medal for “the highest and noblest achievement” by an African American “during the preceding year or years” in recognition of his blood plasma collection and distribution efforts.

Drew became the director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank from 1941 to 1942, but resigned and openly criticized as “unscientific and insulting to African Americans” the ruling of the US armed forces that the blood of Blacks would be accepted but would have to be stored separately from that of Whites [a racist policy that remained in effect until 1950].  While the war still raged, Drew returned to teach at Howard University, heading up the university's department of surgery, and also became the chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital.

Sadly, during his professional prime at the age of 45, Drew died from car injuries while traveling for business in North Carolina. Contrary to a popular myth—repeated on an early episode of the TV series M*A*S*H (“Dear Dad...Three”)—Drew’s death was not due to being refused a blood transfusion in a North Carolina hospital because of his skin color. His injuries were too severe for a transfusion. Drew’s funeral was held on April 5, 1950, at the historic Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in DC.

On a family note, Drew was married to Minnie Lenore Robbins, who had been a professor of home economics at Spelman College (another HBCU). They had three daughters and a son. His daughter Charlene Drew Jarvis served on the Council of the District of Columbia (1979 to 2000), president of Southeastern University (1996 until 2009), and was a president of the DC Chamber of Commerce.

In 1976, the National Park Service designated the Charles Richard Drew House [not open to the public] in Arlington County, VA, as a National Historic Landmark in response to a nomination by the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation. Drew was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015 for US Patent 2,389,355 for a “surgical needle."

SELECTED RELATED READINGS:
American Chemical Society’s online biography of Charles Richard Drew: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/african-americans-in-sciences/charles-richard-drew.html

Biography.com profile: https://www.biography.com/scientist/charles-drew

National Inventors Hall of Fame’s inductee bio: https://www.invent.org/inductees/charles-richard-drew

Drew is one of several Black inventors and innovators who I featured in this February 2018 blog post for the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center: Lost Histories of African American Inventors | Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation (si.edu)