Charles Drew mythology

Websites and the popular press frequently repeat unfounded claims that Dr. Charles R. Drew, African-American scientist and surgeon, "discovered" that plasma could be separated from the rest of the blood and stored for great lengths of time, or that his research "revolutionized" blood storage and transfusion, or that he made possible the first blood banks, or even that he bled to death because a whites-only hospital ironically denied him a blood transfusion.

An excellent reference that addresses popular mythology about Drew's life and his achievements is Charles Wynes' biography, Charles Richard Drew: The Man and the Myth. Wynes shows that Drew was not responsible for the breakthrough scientific or medical discoveries for which he is today so often credited. Drew's actual contribution was mostly organizational: He was medical supervisor for the "Blood for Britain" program to ship blood plasma from the United States to British soldiers during the early part of World War II, and was assistant director for a subsequent national blood program to benefit US armed forces. As part of the latter job, he was put in charge of the New York City Red Cross blood donor center. His responsibilities in these roles included putting to use the latest knowledge acquired by scientists working in several fields, and helping to establish uniform procedures and standards for the mass collection of blood and the processing of blood plasma.

One of the most exaggerated aspects of the Drew myth is his work with blood plasma, of which Wynes writes:

The fact is, Drew did not develop blood plasma in any of its forms, nor did he perfect blood transfusion with blood plasma, as is sometimes claimed in newspapers and popular magazines, in children's books, on television, and even in some history books. It is especially worth noting that no recognized and respected medical or scientific authority or publication has ever made such claims for Drew. Certainly, Drew did not make any such claims for himself, nor have any of his former colleagues or any of his students. To say all this, however, in no way detracts from Drew's actual accomplishments, which well may appear greater if allowed to stand in their own light.

Why all the misleading stories, then? In large part they are the result of the general public's ignorance or misunderstanding of how great scientific advances are made. Much of the public—romantically and idealistically—wants to believe that within science, and medicine especially, there are George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns who either "founded" or "saved" the health of the republic. Put another way, perhaps those same members of the public find it easier to believe, or prefer to believe, the creation story, for miracle though it is, it is easier to grasp than the idea of evolution. Still others—some blacks and some white liberals—are simply looking for the "super Negro" to place upon a pedestal. Whatever the reason, truth (and ultimately even Drew himself) must be the loser, if the myth continues to be perpetuated.

Charles E. Wynes, Charles Richard Drew: The Man and the Myth (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p. 58.

Douglas Starr, author of BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, gives a glowing account of Drew and his contributions to the Blood for Britain program, but admits reality is obscured by sensationalism:

A body of mythology has arisen about Drew, owing perhaps to the scale of his accomplishments, the strength of his character, and the untimeliness of his death. Authors and public figures repeatedly have claimed that Drew invented the process of plasma separation. Indeed, President Harry Truman, at Howard University's commencement in 1952, went so far as to assert that Drew "made possible the very first blood bank in the whole world." What Drew actually did was adapt a laboratory procedure [plasma production] for industrial use — no small ac­com­plish­ment in itself.

Douglas Starr, BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce (Knopf, 1998), p. 100

Finally, there is the urban legend about Drew's death:

Often it is said that the doctor who did so much for transfusion bled to death in a Southern hospital's emergency room because the doctors refused to give him "white" blood. It is difficult to trace the source of the rumor, which some say they began hearing within a couple of years of his death. Dick Gregory, the black comedian and activist, told the story to audiences in the 1960s and '70s. Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, repeated it in his nationally syndicated newspaper column. Mainstream publications such as Time magazine and The New York Times gave credence to the rumor. Even the popular television show "M.A.S.H." recounted the story of Drew's death, elevating it to the level of national folklore.

The story is untrue. The doctors at the hospital in North Carolina recognized Dr. Drew and did not hesitate to give him whatever blood they could. But his injuries were too massive: With his neck broken, his chest crushed, and his vena cava severed, there was no possibility that Drew could have survived. According to [Drew's colleague John] Ford, who was with him at the time, "All the blood in the world could not have saved him."

Starr, p.100