Last week, we looked at the script for “Dear Dad…Three” (02×09), and in that episode, Dr. Charles Drew is mentioned. In the episode, Hawkeye and Trapper point out the prejudice of a wounded soldier by talking about Dr. Drew’s contribution to the medical field and his death. However, since the episode aired in 1974, details about Dr. Drew’s death have been clarified. This week, we are going to look at the life and medical contributions of Dr. Drew, then we will discuss the details surrounding his death and what M*A*S*H got wrong in “Dear Dad…Three.”
Charles Richard Drew was born in 1904 in Washington, DC. He grew up in a upper middle class neighborhood and attended Dunbar High School, America’s first public high school for Black students. Drew applied to several medical schools including Harvard University. Harvard accepted him but wanted to defer his entry by a year, so Drew went to McGill University in Quebec, Canada. In 1933, Drew graduated from McGill with a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree. In 1939, Dr. Drew married Minnie Lenore Robbins, a professor at Spelman College, and they would have four children.
It was while at McGill University that Dr. Drew was introduced the concept of blood transfusions to prevent shock in patients. After college, he completed his graduate work at Columbia University where led studies in blood preservation techniques. He realized that blood plasma could be stored for a longer period of time than standard blood. It was this research that earned him a Doctor of Science in Medicine degree in 1940. During World War II, Dr. Drew worked as a part of the “Blood for Britain” campaign by shipping plasma for the war effort. He also introduced the concept of “bloodmobiles” which moved blood using refrigerated trucks. This would change how quickly blood could be transported to the front lines. In 1942, Dr. Drew resigned from the American Red Cross Blood Bank when the Red Cross insisted that blood donated by white Americans remain separate from blood donated by African Americans.
After the war, Dr. Drew continued to work as a doctor. He would make annual trips from Washington, DC to Tuskegee, Alabama to work at a free clinic at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital. On April 1, 1950, Dr. Drew was driving with three other Black physicians in North Carolina when, due to fatigue, he lost control of the car and crashed in a field. The car summersaulted three times, ejecting Dr. Drew and the other passengers from the car. He would die as a result of his injuries while the other three passengers survived.
This is where M*A*S*H, and other sources from the era, get some facts wrong. In the episode, Trapper and Hawkeye tell the solder that Dr. Drew bled to death because the local hospital would not let him in since it was for whites only. M*A*S*H was not the first to follow this narrative. A novel called The 480, published in 1964, also told Dr. Drew’s story. And it would certainly seem plausible that, in 1950, a hospital for whites only in North Carolina would turn away a severely wounded Black man. But some details have come to light that clarify the details of the response to the accident.
Dr. Drew was severely injured after being ejected from the car and it rolling over him. He was in shock and there was massive internal bleeding from the injuries he sustained. The first ambulance to arrive on the scene was from a nearby white owned funeral home. A second ambulance from a black owned funeral home would also arrive. By the time these ambulances arrived, fifteen minutes had already passed since the accident. Dr. Drew was taken to the closest hospital, Alamance General Hospital. It was a smaller hospital that regularly treated both black and white patients. Dr. Drew was still alive when he arrived at the hospital and the staff, all white, began to prepare to operate. The surgeon operated, but the damage was too severe and Dr. Drew succumbed to his injuries. The other three doctors in the car were treated at the hospital and waited for word on Dr. Drew. They all state that they believe Dr. Drew received the best medical care that was possible.
The death of Dr. Drew was a tragedy as he left behind a young family. His contributions to the medical field are ones that carry forward to this day. The facts surrounding the death of Dr. Drew have been distorted by many other sources besides M*A*S*H, but after researching Dr. Drew and reading a few books about him, I felt that it was important to correct the record. Real prejudice existed in North Carolina at the time of his death, but the doctors who treated Dr. Drew upheld their oaths and tried to provide the best care possible. Sadly, his injuries were just too severe. Perhaps a better way for Hawkeye and Trapper to have pointed out the soldier’s prejudice would have been to explain that the transfusion he received would not have been possible without Dr. Drew’s innovations during World War II. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on to this day.
Sources & Further Reading
Love, Spencie. One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Schraff, Anne E. Dr. Charles Drew: Blood Bank Innovator, Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2003.
Wynes, Charles E. Charles Richard Drew: The Man and the Myth. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
National Library of Medicine. “The Charles R. Drew Papers.”
Science History Institute. “Charles Richard Drew.”