The Debunker: Did the African-American Inventor of the Blood Bank Die Because Doctors Refused Him a Transfusion?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 was Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets… all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Did the African-American Inventor of the Blood Bank Die Because Racist Doctors Refused Him a Transfusion?

Millions of lives have been saved over the years by the pioneering research of Charles Drew. Drew was an Ivy League-educated surgeon—the first African American ever to graduate from Columbia’s medical school—who revolutionized blood banking when he discovered that blood could be refrigerated longer if the blood cells were centrifuged out of the plasma, and that plasma transfusions didn’t have to be separated by blood type. During World War II, Drew set up the world’s first large-scale blood banks to help wounded soldiers. Drew’s accomplishments as a black doctor were even more impressive in an age of limited opportunity for African Americans.

But today, Charles Drew is mostly remembered not for his medical achievements, but for an anecdote about his death. On April 1, 1950, Drew fell asleep behind the wheel of his car on a North Carolina highway. His passengers survived the accident, but Drew was thrown from the driver’s sea and the vehicle rolled over him. He was taken to the closest hospital—a “white” facility in a state where hospitals were still segregated—but doctors there were unable to save his life. He was pronounced dead half an hour later.

According to legend—a legend presented as fact in a 1973 episode of M*A*S*H, among other places—Drew died because Alamance General Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, refused to give a blood transfusion to the inventor of the blood bank. Stories like this certainly aren’t outside the realm of possibility. During World War II, Drew had been asked to resign from his Red Cross post for opposing the War Department’s policy of racially segregating blood donations. But a transfusion wasn’t administered to Drew in 1950 because of his medical condition, not his race. His injuries were just too severe, ranging from a broken neck to brain damage to a complete blockage of blood flow to the heart. Drew’s family even wrote to the attending physicians at Alamance thanking them for their work. A refused blood transfusion would have been a tragic irony, but it never happened.

Quick Quiz: What blood type is often called the “universal donor” because it can be used in transfusions to recipients of any blood type?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings. "Dr.Charles Richard Drew" by Charles Alston taken from Wikipedia.