The Chronicle of Dr. Charles Drew’s Death
From Rumor to Legend
It did not take long for rumors about how Dr. Charles Drew died to surface. Such rumors solidified into legend as they circulated by word of mouth. Specific descriptions of Drew’s accident and care varied greatly in the early rumors. As time passed, most versions retained the same basic details.
I heard he was refused treatment. It happened in the South. Soon after it happened, I heard it being discussed by some doctors. It seems to me it had something to do with blood, something to do with his care that involved blood after the accident—that perhaps his life could have been saved. Everyone was so shocked and upset. . . . It was a crushing blow because he was such a fine doctor. . . . I remember all types of rumors . . . going around the hospital, maybe a week or two after it happened.
—Nurse, Freedman’s Hospital, Howard University
People were very shocked at his death. Everybody was talking about it. He was a young man . . . with such promise. His life was snuffed out. Because he was black, he was not treated at the white hospital . . . in the South. [I heard the story] right after his death, within days.
—Nurse, Freedman’s Hospital Tuberculosis Annex, Howard University, 1950
I heard when he got killed . . . in the spring of the year. Friends said to me, “A guy got killed down there in your town.” It was the talk of the campus for weeks. They said he was killed in an accident. They sort of condemned the hospital for not paying more attention to him than they did. Segregation was in its heyday. They were mad over it. They thought he had not received adequate care quick enough. You know the way segregated hospitals were back then. They put him in a ward and left him unattended.
—Burlington dentist, recalling his student days at Howard University
He had a car accident down South, Georgia, I think. They wouldn’t give him any blood. I believe he died from loss of blood. I heard it right around the time Drew died—everybody was talking about it on campus.
—Dentist and former Howard student, Harlem, New York
Well, you know, at Duke, they wouldn’t treat him. Duke refused to take him in. A story like that you can’t really squelch because too many want to believe it. It’s too tender.
—Howard University professor, reporting rumors heard in 1950
The Legend Finds Voice in Print
False legends describing the death of Charles Drew appeared frequently in the popular press as the Civil Rights movement grew in strength. They still appear in print. These stories provide a telling reminder of how American institutions, particularly in the South, systematically denied African Americans their civil rights.
Dr. Charles Drew: Blood Bank Pioneer Who Bled to Death—While his life blood bubbled away, the man who gave the nation so much died when refused service in a North Carolina hospital.
“I am sorry, but we do not admit Negroes to this hospital. You will have to take him to your hospital across town.”
Sickened, the tall Negro turned away. Back in the car the victim of the automobile accident slumped in the back seat, his life blood bubbling away in a bright stream. He turned anguished, questioning eyes to the driver.
But he knew the answer before it was spoken.
The sight of the blood did not repel the dying man. He had worked with blood for long years, stanching it, testing it, typing it, making plasma from it, discovering new ways to preserve the life-giving fluid.
He had saved many lives. His own he could not save.
By the time they reached the hospital for Negroes, Dr. Charles Drew was dead.
Sepia’s dramatized legend version took many liberties with the story. Charles Drew never regained consciousness after the accident. He was not denied treatment.
Dr. Charles Drew pioneered in new techniques to store blood plasma. Drew, ironically, bled to death after he was injured in a car crash—and was turned away by an all-white hospital.
Time’s brief version captures the essence of the legend.
The story is that Dr. Drew, bleeding to death in a segregated hospital, was denied the blood plasma he helped develop because the hospital had only plasma labeled “white.”
—Miami Herald, 1970
Published legend versions, like oral tellings, manipulate specific details to underscore the irony of the story, thus creating a powerful impact. Drew had strongly opposed the segregation of blood plasma and, according to this version, became a victim of that segregation himself.
Drew, age 45, was hemorrhaging profusely, and nothing the ambulance attendants could do would staunch the flow of bright red arterial blood. Unless he could receive a blood transfusion, he would die.
The ambulance screeched to a halt at a hospital, and the ambulance attendants prepared to wheel Drew into the emergency room for the urgently needed transfusion.
But Drew was denied admission to the hospital.
You see, Drew was black, and in 1950, North Carolina hospitals—as well as most other public facilities—were rigidly segregated.
“I’m sorry,” the hospital official said, in response to the ambulance attendants’ pleas, “but I have no choice. It’s the law.”
The emergency room personnel directed them to another hospital that treated “colored” patients. The ambulance rushed off, siren screaming, red lights flashing, but it was all in vain. Charles Drew bled to death on the way. For want of a transfusion, a black man had died.
—James A. Able, “What Color Blood,” Southern Pines Pilot, November 18, 1981
Though not literally true, the legend, in its many printed variations, speaks to powerful memories of segregation and discrimination. Many African Americans suffered from segregated, discriminatory medical care, and telling the Drew legend allows their experiences to be commemorated and shared.
Legend Becomes History
The Drew legend has appeared in history textbooks and reference works. Few people question facts published in these authoritative sources. This is another reason that people accept the legend as truth.
On April 1, 1950, Dr. Drew was injured in an auto accident near Burlington, North Carolina. Although he was bleeding profusely, he was turned away from the nearest “white” hospital. By the time he was taken to another hospital, the scientist had bled to death.”
—William Loren Katz, Eyewitness: The Negro in American History, 1967
On April 1, 1950, he [Drew] was injured in an automobile accident near Burlington, North Carolina. In dire need of a blood transfusion, he was turned away from a nearby hospital because of his race, and as a result, he died on the way to a hospital for Negroes.
—Webster’s Biographical Dictionary, 1972