Cold Blood

Charles R. Drew pioneered a cold storage procedure used for transfusions that’s still followed today

By Owen Kibenge


Blood bank developer, Charles R. Drew. (Wikimedia Commons)

Red Cross bldg 451 Madison

Meetings that led to the creation of the American Red Cross were held at 451 Madison Avenue. (Photo by Owen Kibenge)

When Charles R. Drew began his research on blood and transfusions at Columbia University’s Presbyterian Hospital (now New-York Presbyterian) in 1938, blood could only be stored for seven days before it began to spoil. While working on his dissertation, Drew discovered that liquid plasma, the fluid portion of the blood, consisted of water, salt, sugar, hormones and vitamins, and that it could last longer than platelets or red and white blood cells. Using this new knowledge about the components of blood, Drew determined that whole blood could be frozen for up to 21 days without losing its properties, and that plasma could be safely stored in such a way for up to a year. Plasma and whole blood then could be recombined to provide transfusions.

As World War II approached, physicians anticipated a huge demand for blood. The American Red Cross took the lead to meet this demand and, in 1941, Drew was appointed director. He took charge of a program to make blood available for soldiers in Britain: the “Plasma for Britain” Project. Under his stewardship, some 13 million pints from 100,000 donors were collected. Most of this blood was collected in, and transported by, the first “blood mobiles,” trucks equipped with refrigerators. Today, the Red Cross still uses these trucks and collects 50 percent of blood in the United States.

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