We think of the persecution of scientists as something that happened in the distant past. But in the recent past, America absolutely wrecked a brilliant scientist. Charles Drew is the reason why hundreds of thousands of people are alive today. American policies hampered him professionally and scientifically, and may be part of the reason he died early.
Charles Drew was born black, in America, in 1904, and so faced a hard road from the very beginning. He alleviated some difficulties by being a gifted athlete, which won him a scholarship to Amherst College. While there, he developed an interest in medicine, but was barred from most medical schools until Canada recognized a good thing when they saw it and admitted him McGill University College of Medicine. He developed an interest in transfusions there, and, after a slew of awards at McGill and a stint as an instructor at Howard University College of Medicine, he went to Presbyterian Hospital in New York. There he was channeled into an unusual program at an experimental blood bank, but was not given direct access to any patients.
Drew decided to turn lemons into bloody lemonade, and intensely studied every aspect of the transfusion procedure. At the time, there were constant blood shortages. Donated blood could only be kept for two days, and had to be precisely typed. It was also separated by race, which meant that minorities generally had less of a chance of getting blood than anyone else.
While working there, Drew invented a process that let blood be stored longer and used more effectively. He realized that separating the whole blood from the plasma and refrigerating both kept the blood good for a week. With study and experimentation, he nailed down the most efficient procedure for everything from drawing blood to delivering it to its new home. He also discovered that although blood had to be typed, plasma could be used for anyone, regardless of blood type.
Eventually he became such a master of the process that he was put in charge of the Blood for Britain project during World War II – which shipped blood plasma out to help Allied soldiers. Drew climbed higher, heading the American Red Cross blood bank when America entered the war. But his star fell, when he insisted on stopping the segregation of blood by race. Although Drew was the expert on the subject, his stance on desegregation of blood was largely ignored, and he resigned.
He did not live long after the war. In one of the more vicious twists of fate, he was involved in a terrible car accident in 1950. Some sources say an ambulance brought him to a hospital for treatment, but he was refused treatment because he was African American. The ambulance had to travel to another hospital. Some say that getting blood earlier would not have saved him, only slightly prolonged his life. Others dispute this. (Note: Another source notes that Dr Drew actually was treated at the first hospital. Although this doesn't lessen the tragedy of his death, or the push-back against his scientific expertise on the desegregation of blood by race, it helps make the story of his life somewhat less bitter.) He died at forty-six. However, he spent those forty-six years revolutionizing a critical medical process, and so will be responsible for saving lives all over the world for the foreseeable future.