Black Blood and a Black Crayon: The fight for desegregating blood donations

Our final blog for Black History Month takes a look at one of the many struggles for racial equity in the history of medicine and the brave clinicians who led the way. 

There are a plethora of impressive Black clinicians in American history, from Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to earn a medical degree, to Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, whose research on cancer treatment laid the foundations for chemotherapy to become a viable option for patients. One that we’d like to highlight is Dr. Charles Drew. 

Prior to the mid-twentieth century, blood donations were separated into “white” and “black.” This racist system meant that white people would only take “white” blood for transfusions, despite no scientific basis for the labeling. At the time, no method had been developed to properly store blood donations, leading to unnecessary suffering. Dr. Charles Drew was one of the brilliant scientists who pioneered the procedures for the preservation of blood plasma in 1939, earning him the title “Father of the Blood Bank.” Later, he created refrigerated blood donation trucks known as “bloodmobiles.” His innovations revolutionized medicine and saved countless lives.

Ironically, because of his race, Dr. Drew was unable to participate in the very programs he created. He was an outspoken critic of blood segregation, and at one point said, “It is unfortunate that such a worthwhile and scientific bit of work should have been hampered by such stupidity.” Dr. Drew went on to train up-and-coming Black surgeons at Howard University for nearly a decade before tragically passing away in a car accident in 1950. At the time of his death, his advocacy efforts had gained momentum and blood banks began desegregating their blood across the country–although it took until the 70s for the final state to get rid of their racist policies.

“It is unfortunate that such a worthwhile and scientific bit of work should have been hampered by such stupidity.”

-Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Drew was not alone in fighting for equality in blood donations. Lown Institute founder Dr. Bernard Lown was expelled from medical school for his antiracist activism while working at the blood bank. He sabotaged the segregated blood bank by re-labeling “Black” blood as “white”, undermining the system with a single black crayon.

Dr. Drew and Dr. Lown’s advocacy efforts took years to see success. Fully desegregating blood donations has been a goal for decades. Even today, the goal of equity in blood donations has not been fully reached. As recently as 2006, Black communities were subject to an experimental “blood substitute” without informed consent. And just last month, the FDA moved to finally allow gay men to donate blood, under certain stipulations. Advocacy for an equitable and just healthcare system continues.

Many more Black physicians are making vital contributions to society and medicine than are covered here. At the Lown Institute, we’re looking for clinicians who stand out for their bold leadership in social justice, environmentalism, global peace, or other notable humanitarian efforts for our Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility. If you know of one – or are one – submit a nomination for a BLASR today; nominations close March 1.