Blood banking in the name of Dr. Charles Drew: Comptroller Darlene Green hosts American Red Cross blood drive

Flavia Horne, a phlebotomist with the American Red Cross, prepared to draw blood from Michele Coleman at the Dr. Charles Drew Blood Drive sponsored by Comptroller Darlene Green on February 11 in Room 208 of St. Louis City Hall.

Photo by Wiley Price

Comptroller Darlene Green hosted a blood drive in the name of Dr. Charles Drew for the American Red Cross on Monday, February 11 in Room 208 of St. Louis City Hall.

“The need for donations is ongoing, and only volunteer donors can fulfill that need,” Comptroller Green said. “Nationwide, someone needs a unit of blood every two to three seconds and most people will have at least one blood transfusion in their lifetimes.”

In addition, she noted, there is a need for African-American blood donors for sickle cell therapies. Although there is no cure for Sickle Cell Disease, it can be managed through regular blood transfusions.

Chana Morton, who works in Green’s office, donated blood during the drive. She told The American that she has family members and friends who struggle with Sickle Cell Disease. “I want to help people, but especially those with Sickle Cell,” Morton said.

The namesake of the blood drive, Dr. Charles R. Drew (1904-1950), was a prominent physician and medical researcher who improved techniques for blood storage and developed the first large-scale blood banks early in World War II. He also trained a generation of black physicians at Howard University.

Drew did not excel scholastically in high school or at Amherst College in Massachusetts, which he attended on an athletic scholarship. He cited the death of his oldest sister, Elsie (from tuberculosis complicated by influenza) and his own hospitalization for a college football injury as fostering his interest in medicine.

Drew worked on a fellowship with Dr. John Scudder at New York's Presbyterian Hospital while pursuing his doctorate in medical science from Columbia University. It was while working with Scudder that he developed his first experimental blood bank, which also formed the basis for his dissertation, “Banked Blood.” He became the first African American to earn a doctorate in medical science at Columbia.

After working on a Blood for Britain project during World War II, Drew served as assistant director for a Red Cross pilot program to mass-produce dried plasma in New York in 1941. This became the model for the National Blood Donor Service. Despite Drew’s leadership role, the Red Cross pilot project and the National Blood Donor Service excluded black donors, at the insistence of the U.S. armed forces. After protests from the Black Press and the NAACP, the Red Cross started to accept blood from black donors in January 1942, but segregated it.

"It is fundamentally wrong for any great nation to willfully discriminate against such a large group of its people,” Drew said in his Spingarn Medal acceptance speech in 1944. “One can say quite truthfully that on the battlefields nobody is very interested in where the plasma comes from when they are hurt."

Of course, American blood supplies have been desegregated for decades, so blood donors have no way of knowing what person from which background will be helped with their donation. There remains an enduring need for blood donations that is especially high right now, according to the American Red Cross, after this month’s historic cold weather resulted in many blood drives being cancelled and thousands of blood donations going uncollected.

Michele Coleman, who works in the city’s Department of Human Services, understands. “I do this every year,” she said, as she lay on a portable gurney to have her blood drawn. “Because it’s needed.”

Source for information on Dr. Charles R. Drew: U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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