Dr. Charles Drew pioneered blood preservation and storage while advocating for more opportunities for Black physicians 

BY LEAH TABER

Carrying a tray of bright red geraniums, Dr. Charles Richard Drew led his daughter to the backyard of their three-story house on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., where a circular arrangement of colorful blooms awaited them.

Working between 12 and 16 hours a day as a surgeon and scientist, Drew always made time to tend the sizeable flower garden. On this warm spring day, he tasked his daughter, Sylvia, to help plant them.

Drew outlined her seemingly simple job in detail: dig a hole, take the flower out of its tray, place it in the hole, then pack dirt firmly around the plant so that the stalk would stand straight and tall. The 5-year-old affirmed that she understood.

Knees in the dirt, Sylvia grabbed the garden trowel and repeatedly plunged the tool into the earth until she made an adequate hole. Grasping the leafy green stem, she plucked the first flower out of the tray, placed it in the hole, and covered the base with dirt before looking to her father for approval.

Laying down the small garden shovel, Drew informed his daughter that they couldn’t move on to the next one. She protested: She had put the plant in the hole and covered the roots with dirt, just like he asked. He explained that, without packed dirt, the geranium could die because it didn’t have the support it needed to grow.

“So I worked very hard to get that dirt packed hard around the flower,” Sylvia Drew Ivie—now 80—recalled of that memory from 1949.

“And that’s the way we proceeded to plant all those little red flowers. I remember how important it was to me to listen to the instructions, to follow his directions, and to get it right.”

His children and medical students remembered his motto well: “Excellence of performance will transcend artificial barriers created by man.”

Dr. Drew maintained his commitment to excellence in whatever he did, from his research and groundbreaking leadership in blood plasma preservation and storage in World War II to what he saw as his most important innovation: training a cadre of elite Black surgeons at Howard University’s medical school and placing them in institutions and hospitals across the country.

A car accident early on the morning of April 1, 1950, cut short Drew’s Herculean efforts to overcome racial segregation and discrimination with Black excellence.

After a full day of performing surgery, teaching, attending university events, and doing hospital rounds, he was traveling with three colleagues to the John A. Andrew Hospital annual free clinic in Tuskegee, Alabama, when he fell asleep at the wheel, overcorrected, and crashed near Burlington, North Carolina.

His passengers escaped with minor injuries, but Drew was not so lucky. The segregated hospital to which he was taken used every possible measure to save him, but his injuries were too great. He died at 45.

Drew left behind an incredible legacy at Howard’s department of surgery. He created, trained, and nurtured the first members of his hoped-for community of Black surgeons—the flowers he planted, steeped in excellence.

From his appointment to his post in 1941 to his death, he trained over half of the Black surgeons certified by the American Board of Surgery. Another 14 surgeons who received part of their training from him passed the boards after his death.

For the entire story, see uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/journeys-innovation.