Black History Month, day 17

I gave blood today (thank you, Stanford Blood Center!), which always puts me in a good mood and gives me reason to reflect on Charles Drew, the surgeon who developed blood-preservation processes such as the separation of plasma that made blood banks possible.

Charles Drew (Drew is sitting on the table on the right). Collection of the National Library of Medicine.

His research came just in time to save thousands of lives in World War II–the “Blood for Britain” program sent US blood donations to English soldiers and civilians, and would not have been possible a few years earlier. However, when the US entered the war, the US military requested that the American Red Cross only accept blood from whites, and they complied. When humanitarian groups protested, the policy was changed so that all blood was accepted, but it was segregated so that white people would receive only white people’s blood, black people only black people’s, a ludicrous and dangerous form of discrimination that Drew publicly protested.

Drew died at age 45 in a car accident. The legend that he bled to death for lack of medical treatment–specifically, being refused blood–at a whites-only hospital  is just that, an urban legend that sounded probable enough but, according to reliable witnesses, was not true. It got its legs not only because the painful irony makes a compelling story, but because of its plausibility: African-Americans were routinely turned away from hospitals, with many deaths as a result. Spencie Love, author of One Blood, pairs the story of Charles Drew with that of Maltheus Reeves Avery, another man who died of car-accident injuries in the same county, in the same year, because the hospital to which he was taken–a different one–had no remaining “black beds.”

African-Americans’ warranted mistrust of doctors and blood banks still keeps many African-American potential donors from giving blood, piling tragedy upon tragedy.

A bright spot in the story, however, is that hundreds of millions of people have received donated blood since the development of the blood bank. It is a safe bet that if you’re reading this, someone you love is alive today because of Drew’s research.

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