Drew drawing attention
by Daniel McCabe
One of the Faculty of Medicine's most remarkable graduates is receiving a lot of attention these days--and some say it's high time.
Charles Drew, a pioneering blood plasma researcher in the 1940s and a role model to hundreds of thousands of black Americans, was honoured by the faculty last month when it inaugurated a visiting professorship in his name. He is also the subject of a new book by American historian Spencie Love that challenges the widely held misconception that Drew died as the result of a North Carolina hospital's racist practices.
McGill surgery professor Jonathan Meakins played a major role in the creation of the University's Charles R. Drew Visiting Professorship. "There were a number of people--especially in Montreal's black medical community--who kept asking, 'Why hasn't McGill done anything to recognize Drew?'" recounts Meakins. Meakins discovered Drew's ties to the University when he attended a presentation about Drew's life at a medical conference and was surprised to hear McGill mentioned repeatedly.
"I thought he sounded like a very impressive man and Dean (of Medicine) Fuks agreed. Gavin Ross (former executive director of the McGill Alumni Association) was also anxious that McGill should remember Drew in some way."
Drew chose to attend McGill in the 1930s in part to avoid the racism he expected to encounter in many American universities. McGill's own record on that score was mixed--unofficial quotas prevented many Jews from attending the University and black residents in some teaching hospitals were restricted from taking part in certain medical procedures.
Still, as Drew biographer Dorothy Young Croman wrote, "McGill was noted...for its kindly treatment of Negro students."
During his McGill studies, Drew earned the attention of anatomy professor John Beattie, who became a mentor. He graduated second in his class in 1933 and earned a fistful of scholarships. More significantly, working with Beattie Drew began to consider questions related to blood transfusions and the storage of plasma. His studies at McGill laid the groundwork for his later, pivotal discoveries in this area.
After interning at the Royal Victoria Hospital and doing a residency at the Montreal General Hospital, Drew returned to the U.S. to take up a position at Howard University in Washington, DC. During World War II, he was named director of the Blood for Britain project that supplied plasma to American and British soldiers. Drew helped introduce improved techniques for storing and distributing plasma that became standard after the war.
In 1941, he resigned as assistant director of America's national blood banking program when the U.S. War Department insisted on the segregation of "black" and "white" blood. Drew decried the move as "indefensible." He later campaigned against regulations which barred black doctors from joining local chapters of the American Medical Association.
Drew eventually became medical director of Freedman's Hospital and head of surgery at Howard, where he was an influential and beloved teacher. "He represented integrity, honesty, loyalty and a commitment to excellence," says Dr. Lasalle Lefall, a student of Drew's and McGill's first Drew visiting professor.
Lefall, a past-president of the American College of Surgeons, is the Charles R. Drew professor of surgery and chair of the Department of Surgery at Howard's College of Medicine.
As the Drew visiting professor, Lefall gave a public lecture on ethical medical practices and conducted grand rounds at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Lefall hopes that Love's new book will set the record straight about Drew's death. In 1950, Drew died after sustaining major injuries in a car crash. It was believed by many that the accident occurred close to a whites-only hospital that refused to treat him, but Love's book, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles Drew, refutes this account.
"(The myth) does an injustice to the men and women who worked feverishly to save his life--including the black surgeon who worked on him," says Lefall. "Drew died because of the severity of his injuries."
Love notes that civil rights leaders such as Dick Gregory used the apocryphal Drew story in the 1960s to dramatize the lack of health services available to black Americans. The story even made it into an episode of the TV series "M*A*S*H." Love adds that while Drew didn't die because of a hospital's whites-only practices, others did perish during that period because of such policies. The historian concludes that the story was true in a sense, since "it makes a meaningful statement about the world Drew lived in."
Lefall argues that the U.S. still has a distance to travel before it can make any claims to true racial equality. He says his school, founded 130 years ago with the express purpose of training black scholars who weren't allowed to study at other colleges, plays a vital role today.
"There is still a lack of adequate opportunities for black medical students," says Lefall, adding that Howard accepts students who, for reasons that have little to do with their potential for medicine, aren't accepted elsewhere.
"Our philosophy is that we don't focus too much on what we bring in, we put the focus on what we put out--the students who make it through Howard and graduate stack up well against students from other schools."
Meakins says McGill's Drew visiting professorship won't be reserved for doctors from visible minority groups alone.
"We will never make that a condition. We want to honour Drew for his qualities as a doctor and teacher. He was a magnetic personality. He had a fine career as a scientist and as an administrator, but in the final analysis, he was committed to patient care more than anything else. Dr. Lefall certainly has those qualities and we'll be looking for other individuals who fit that profile."