Last updated: August 17, 2018
Dr. Charles Drew, who pioneered blood banking during the 1920s to 1940s, lived in a modest two-story frame house in North Arlington. He was also the first African American to receive a Doctorate of Science in Medicine. As Chief of Surgery at Freedmen's Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), Drew passed on crucial training to a new generation of black surgeons, many of whom would continue on to integrate hospital workforces throughout the nation. He also opposed the American Red Cross’ policy of segregated blood banks. Located just outside of Washington, DC, the Drew family home in Arlington, Virginia was the physician’s home base during his formative years of study from 1920 to 1939.
Drew was born at Freedmen’s Hospital in 1904 to educated, middle class parents. In response to strict segregation laws and social practices, black Washingtonians had developed strong cultural and intellectual centers. In his early years in DC, Drew took advantage of the institutions developed by blacks including hikes and picnics organized by the Twelfth Street YMCA. He also attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, a nationally recognized black high school. Outside of academia, Drew was involved in programs at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. Drew also excelled in sports. He had developed high self-confidence and determination.
Drew spent 18 years training to become a surgeon. After graduating from high school in 1922, Drew continued onto college. He began at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Even in the north, Drew experienced institutionalized racism. He could not become the captain of the football team because of his skin color.
After graduating in 1926, Drew briefly taught biology and chemistry at Morgan State College in Baltimore, MD. Two years later he moved to Canada to attend McGill Medical School. Here he first learned about blood transfusions as a way to treat patients in shock. Drew graduated from McGill and began to teach at Howard University in 1935. Yet three years later, he relocated to Columbia University in 1938 to earn his doctorate. While in New York, Drew met and married his wife, Lenore Robbins. They had four children together.
At Columbia, Drew chose to specialize in blood plasma and transfusions. Along with another student, he developed an experimental blood bank. This project became the basis of his dissertation, titled “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation.” Throughout his education, Drew received scholarships, without which he could not have paid his McGill tuition.
In 1940, Drew completed his PhD and returned to Freedmen's Hospital as a certified surgeon. He wished to settle down after his years of constant transition, however, the outbreak of World War II changed his plans. In September 1940, he moved back to New York to direct the Blood for Britain project. Already engaged in warfare, Britain needed portable blood. The initiative successfully delivered usable blood to those in need of emergency transfusions. In early 1941, Drew became the assistant director of the first American Red Cross blood bank. In April, now a certified diplomat of the American Board of Surgery, Drew returned to Freedmen’s Hospital as Head of Surgery.
In October 1941, the Red Cross announced it would not take blood from black donors. In theory, Drew could not donate blood to the very program that he helped form. Amidst protest from the NAACP, the Red Cross amended its policy. Instead, it would segregate black and white blood banks. Drew voiced his disapproval of the policy in letters to friends, family and officials. He argued there was no scientific evidence proving a difference in black and white blood. In 1943, Drew publicly spoke out against blood segregation. The American Red Cross did not change their policies until 1950.
Up until his death in 1950, Drew called for medical schools to end their exclusion of black students. At his own institution, Drew transformed the surgical department and training program. He provided modernized medical services to black citizens. On April 1, 1950, Drew died in a car accident on his way to a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. Hundreds attended his funeral in Washington, DC. His family buried him in Lincoln Cemetery in Maryland.
The Drew House in Arlington, VA serves as a reminder of Dr. Charles Drew’s years of persistent training and work and his extraordinary accomplishments in medicine and civil rights. It is a monument to Drew's achievements in education and science. Drew's foundational research on plasma and blood banking helped modernize medicine and saved thousands of lives during World War II and later conflicts.
"Biographical Information." The Charles R. Drew Papers. https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/retrieve/Narrative/BG/p-nid/336
Love, Spencie. One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, 1996.
National Historic Landmark Nomination of the Charles Richard Drew House.
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States. The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.