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Remembering The Father Of Blood Banking, A Black Doctor Who Took A Stand

Dr. Charles Drew, pictured in a lab at Howard University, was known as the father of blood banking for pioneering the way we store and transport blood today.
Dr. Charlene Jarvis
Dr. Charles Drew, pictured in a lab at Howard University, was known as the father of blood banking for pioneering the way we store and transport blood today.

Updated August 25, 2021 at 3:40 PM ET

During World War II, Dr. Charles Drew developed a way to get life-saving blood plasma to service members injured in battle.

Known today as "the father of blood banking," Drew was a key pioneer in developing ways to store and transport blood. His methods were adopted by the American Red Cross.

In 1950, at age 45, Drew suffered serious injuries from a car crash in North Carolina. Surgeons at a nearby hospital were unable to save him.

His daughter, Charlene Jarvis, was just 8 years old when her father died.

Charlene, now 80, and her son Ernest Jarvis, 59, remembered Drew's legacy and his lifelong "drive for excellence" in a recent interview with StoryCorps.

Charlene recalled how Drew, a Black man, was not allowed to fully participate in the very program he made possible. Shortly after the Red Cross's national blood donation program began in 1941, African Americans were excluded from giving blood. In 1942, the organization began allowing Black people to give blood, but without any medical rationale, segregated blood by race.

Drew publicly protested the blood segregation policy, Charlene said. He argued that there was no scientific basis for it, she recalled: "Further than that, he said, 'You need the blood. We are at war.' "

He was a determined teacher and surgeon, his daughter said, "and if that took taking a stand, that's what he did."

Ernest asked his mother how much she knew about the work her father was doing when she was growing up.

"I must say that I didn't know a lot about what my father was doing until he died," said Charlene.

She was in school the day of her dad's funeral. "My mother felt that it was better that we not be at the service," she said.

Yet Charlene bore witness to how much respect other people had for her father.

"When the funeral procession left, it went by my school," she said. "I saw the cars going by and the cars went by, and they went by. And I was simply astounded that there were so many people who revered him."

Dr. Drew was appointed director of the American Red Cross's first blood bank in 1941, which oversaw blood for use by the U.S. Army and Navy.

He went on the following year to work at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. — now known as Howard University Hospital — as chief of surgery and as a professor of medicine at Howard. Despite his efforts to reverse the military and Red Cross policy on blood segregation by race, it wasn't overturned until months after his death in 1950.

Drew was also a renowned teaching surgeon who trained many Black surgeons in his time.

"It's an enormous thing to think about, even now, to have done so much in such a little bit of time," Charlene said.

"You know, I think I call him Dr. Drew because it is honorific. A man of the ages is not someone who is called 'Daddy.' "

Charlene, following in her father's scientific footsteps, became a neuroscientist.

Drew's "drive for excellence was something that all of us felt," she said, "whether it was his children, whether it was a nurse, whether it was the physicians in the hospital."

Ernest told his mom that he will pass on their conversations about his grandfather's legacy to his children so that they can tell their children.

"They will all know that Dr. Drew blazed a path for them," he said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kamilah Kashanie and Jey Born. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 25, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A caption in a previous version of this story listed the year the photo was taken as 1942. We cannot confirm when the photo was taken.
Kamilah Kashanie (she/her) is the host of the StoryCorps Podcast. Kashanie's love for radio is rooted in her desire to understand more about what makes us who we are. As a storyteller, she's committed to starting conversations to make lasting changes in underserved communities, and to craft narratives that help give voice to individuals who would not otherwise have a platform to tell their stories. She's also a graduate of the Transom Audio Storytelling Workshop and the host of Feeling My Flo, a reported podcast about menstruation from PRX and Lantigua-Williams & Co.
Jey Born