The truth about the death of Dr. Charles Drew

Published 4:00 am Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On April 1, 1950, Dr. Charles Drew, a scientist, who experimented with blood plasma, died after an auto accident in rural North Carolina en route to speak at a conference being held at Tuskegee University in Alabama. As a scientist, his pioneering research was key to the storage of blood without contamination as we know it today. Within hours of his death, rumors spread: the man who helped create the first American Red Cross blood bank had bled to death because a whites-only hospital refused to treat him.

Dr. Drew was well-known in America for his work on blood plasma, and his death shocked the entire nation. His popularity was due in part to his findings on blood plasma in an article titled Banked Blood, since the process of collecting and storing blood was called “banking.” Dr. Drew earned his Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia University in 1940. This was also the same year as the start of World War II.

Drew and other American blood specialists were exploring ways to get life-saving blood plasma to the war front when he received an urgent request from his former teacher, Dr. John Beattie, who had returned to England. A cablegram asked for 8,000 ampules of dried plasma for transfusions, plus the same amount three weeks later. Dr. Drew was chosen as the medical supervisor of the blood for the Britain project, which helped save the lives of many wounded soldiers.

Following this success, 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 US Army and Navy. As Drew set up the blood bank and trained staff, he also spoke out against the armed forces directive that blood was to be separated according to the race of the donor. Dr. Drew knew this was wrong, that there was no racial difference in the blood. Obeying this directive meant that soldiers and sailors would not die needlessly waiting for “same race” blood.

Leading up to his death, he was at the peak of success related to his work. His untimely death on April 1, 1950 was like a cruel April fool’s hoax; of the four people in his vehicle that fateful day, he was the only fatality. Two white doctors at the segregated hospital where he was taken recognized him and worked fervently to save his life. His death was due to the horrific loss of blood he suffered as a result of his injuries.

It was actually Maltheus Avery, a 24-year-old veteran who was in an automobile accident in rural North Carolina eight months after Drew’s death that the rumor, many years later, was attributable to Drew. Avery died on the way to a Negro hospital, after Duke University Hospital turned him away; Duke’s “black beds” – 15 out of 120 – were full.

The rumors concerning Dr. Charles Drew’s death remain, even today.