When Dr. Charles Drew, one of the nation's leading blood bank pioneers, died on April 1, 1950, after being injured in a car crash in Alamance County, a story arose that he died because he was denied blood transfusions at a white hospital. That tale, which has persisted for half a century, is cited by local Red Cross leaders as one of the reasons why more of Drew's fellow African Americans do not give blood.
If true, the story would be a tragic irony. Drew, a Washington, D.C. native, helped create a safe method for storing blood, and went on to become the first director of the Red Cross's national blood bank.
A graduate of the McGill University Medical School in Montreal, Canada, Drew took on a research assignment at Columbia University Medical School in the late 1930s to learn all he could about collecting and storing blood. His results led him to conclude it would be better to store plasma rather than whole blood because plasma lasted longer and was less likely to become contaminated. Drew's findings on "banked blood" were published as a dissertation.
After receiving his degree from Columbia in 1940, Drew became medical supervisor of the Blood for Britain project, which helped save the lives of many wounded soldiers in World War II. Later, he was named director of the Red Cross Blood Bank and assistant director of the National Research Council, in charge of blood collection for the U.S. Army and Navy.
As Drew set up the military blood bank using his plasma preservation technique, and recruited and trained staff, he spoke out against an armed services directive that blood should be separated according to the race of the donor. Drew argued that soldiers and sailors would die needlessly if they had to wait for "same race" blood. In the end, the armed forces changed the directive.
Former colleagues and relatives say Drew did not die because he was denied treatment at a white hospital.
"He suffered massive injuries," says Durham resident Charles Watts, an African-American surgeon and former student of Drew's. "There were three other doctors in the car that Dr. Drew was driving. Only one other person was injured. They all went to the hospital and witnessed the efforts to stabilize Dr. Drew."
Watts says his former teacher was taken to Alamance General Hospital, a small, private hospital in Burlington. "The two brothers who owned that hospital shut down the facility's normal operations to devote their efforts to trying to stabilize Dr. Drew, but his injuries were simply too massive," Watts says. "The accident occurred about 8 a.m. and he was pronounced dead about 11 a.m."
The false story about Drew's death fit the tone of the segregated times, and over the years, it's been easy to believe and difficult to discount.
But the facts lead to only one conclusion, Watts says: "Dr. Drew was taken to the closest hospital. He was treated there for three hours until he died. This treatment was witnessed by three other competent African-American physicians."