A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did the black doctor who invented blood plasma die because white doctors wouldn't treat him?

November 10, 1989

Dear Cecil:

Is it true the black doctor who invented blood plasma bled to death in front of a hospital because the white doctors refused to admit him?

Cecil replies:

For the real story on this classic legend Cecil is indebted to Scot Morris of Omni magazine, who wrote about it in his book Omni Games. Here's the dope:

Charles R. Drew was a black surgeon who pioneered techniques for preserving blood plasma that saved countless lives during World War II. Later he became medical director of Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1950, while driving three other black doctors to a conference in Alabama, Drew fell asleep at the wheel. The car swerved and rolled over, breaking his neck and crushing his chest. According to legend, he desperately needed a blood transfusion, but doctors at a hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, refused to admit him, and he died.

This story is told in several black history books and has been repeated by Dick Gregory, among others. But it isn't true. Morris spoke with Dr. John Ford, one of the passengers in Drew's car. "We all received the very best of care," Ford said. "The doctors started treating us immediately."

Drew didn't receive a transfusion because his injuries wouldn't permit it. "He had a superior vena caval syndrome — blood was blocked getting back to his heart from his brain and upper extremities," Ford said. "To give him a transfusion would have killed him sooner. Even the most heroic efforts couldn't have saved him. I can truthfully say that no efforts were spared in the treatment of Dr. Drew, and, contrary to popular myth, the fact that he was a Negro did not in any way limit the care that was given to him."

The Drew story is similar to one told about blues singer Bessie Smith. She too supposedly bled to death after an auto accident when a white hospital refused to admit her. The alleged incident, which occurred in Mississippi in 1937, was even the subject of a play by Edward Albee. But as Morris notes, "Though the whole truth will probably never be known, it is certain she did not die this way." Morris's efforts notwithstanding, I'll bet these macabre legends won't die for a long time either.

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