Charles Drew and the Modern Blood Bank

by | Sep 16, 2010 08:00 PM ET
Marshall Brain

Behold the blood bank. But where did it come from? Meet Charles Drew, born in Washington D.C. in 1904. As an African American in a time of intense racial discrimination, Charles Drew faced many obstacles growing up. Yet he excelled in high school as an award winning athlete and a sharp student. After high school, he studied at Amherst, McGill, and Columbia. At Columbia Charles began to research blood and blood transfusions. This was a vital area of research at the time because blood could only be stored for two days before the blood cells began to break down. Charles realized that if he could figure out how to keep more blood on hand for a longer amount of time, he could save thousands of lives. Here's where his Stuff of Genius kicked in. Drew separated blood into two components; the plasma, or the liquid part of the blood, and the whole blood, which contains the blood cells. These components could keep for up to a week. Because people have different blood types, they can only accept blood transfusions from people with compatible blood. However, anyone can accept blood plasma from any donor. And since the blood kept for a longer amount of time, Charles could build up a store of blood, making regular deposits sort of like - you guess it - a bank. Charles continued his research and became the project director for the American Red Cross, saving thousands of lives across Europe and the U.S.

So how genius is this inventor? On the American Dream scale, he gets a five. Charles Drew triumphed over intense discrimination, became the first black graduate of Columbia's medical school, and won numerous awards for his research. On the benefits to humanity scale he gets a five. The invention of blood banks remains one of the most significant medical breakthroughs in the past century. On the ripple effect scale, he gets a four. Blood banks based on Charles Drew's discoveries are used across the world today.

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