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Honoring the Contributions of African American Scientists, Mathematicians, Inventors and Engineers

By Michele G. Moss, Esquire

This article continues a piece Michele wrote in 2021. To read it click here

This article discusses a few of the many skilled African-American scientists, inventors and engineers whose inventions and achievements advanced scientific knowledge and improved our lives. Despite their extraordinary contributions to this country and to the world, their names remain hidden and largely unknown by most Americans. The continuing struggle of African-Americans in this country is to be seen as Americans and given proper credit for our accomplishments.

. . . So much of our energy is spent in overcoming the constricting environment in which we live that little energy is left for creating new ideas or things. Whenever, however, one breaks out of this rather high-walled prison of the “Negro problem” by virtue of some worthwhile contribution, not only is he himself allowed more freedom, but part of the wall crumbles. And so it should be the aim of every student in science to knock down at least one or two bricks of that wall by virtue of his own accomplishment.

Dr. Charles Richard Drew to Mrs. J.F. Bates, a Fort Worth, Texas schoolteacher, January 27, 1947

These scientists, citizens, inventors and their amazing achievements are a part of American history. Let us shine a light on the phenomenal achievements of these great Americans not only during Black History month, but all year round

Dr. Charles Richard Drew
Charles R. Drew was an African-American surgeon and medical researcher who organized America’s first large scale blood bank and trained a generation of black physicians as a professor at Howard University College of Medicine. Charles Richard Drew was born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. Drew was the oldest of five children. Drew’s parents, Richard and Nora Burrell Drew, emphasized the importance of academics, church membership, civic knowledge, personal competence, responsibility and independence. In 1920, at the age of 16, his family moved to Arlington, VA.

Drew attended Dunbar High School where he excelled as a student and also as an athlete. At Dunbar, Drew lettered in football, basketball, baseball, and track. Drew graduated from Dunbar High School in 1922. Drew attended Amherst College in Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship. It was at Amherst that Drew first developed an interest in medical science through his biology courses. Drew received his AB from Amherst and was one of 16 black students to graduate in 1926. Despite Drew’s academic achievements, the racial segregation that existed at the time severely limited his options for medical school. There were a few prominent universities, like Harvard, that accepted a few students of color each year. However, most African-Americans who wanted to become doctors had to train at historically black colleges and universities, such as Howard University College of Medicine or Meharry Medical College in Tennessee. Drew applied to Howard’s College of Medicine, but he was not accepted. Drew was accepted into Harvard medical school, but they wanted to delay his admission for the next year. Unwilling to wait another year to start medical school, Drew applied to the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montréal. Drew was also aware that McGill University had a better reputation than U.S. medical schools for fair treatment of students of color.

While at McGill University, Drew continued playing sports and became a star athlete. At the same time, Drew continued to excel in academics and graduated 2nd in his class of 137 students. Drew graduated from McGill in 1933 and completed his internship and surgical residency at Montréal General Hospital from 1933 through 1935. During Dr. Drew’s residency he worked closely with Professor John Beattie, who was researching ways to treat shock with transfusion and other fluid replacement. It was Dr. Drew’s work with Professor Beattie that sparked his interest in transfusion medicine and, along with other events in his life, drove Dr. Drew to pursue his blood bank research. Dr. Drew hoped to continue his training by completing a surgical residency in the United States, preferably at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. Unfortunately, major American research hospitals rarely took on African-American residents because most white patients refused to be treated by black physicians. In 1935, Dr. Drew joined the faculty at Howard University College of Medicine.

While teaching at Howard, Dr. Drew trained with Department of Surgery chair Edward Lee Howes and then received a fellowship to train with eminent surgeon Allen O. Whipple at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital. At Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Drew worked with John Scudder on studies relating to treating shock, fluid balance, blood chemistry and preservation, and transfusion. In the early 1930s medical science had not yet determined how to preserve blood, a dilemma that became Dr. Drew’s mission. The basis for Dr. Drew’s thesis titled “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation” was an experimental blood bank that opened at Presbyterian in 1939. Dr. Drew discovered that, unlike whole blood, which deteriorates after a few days in storage, blood plasma, the liquid portion of the blood without cells, can be preserved for long periods of time and substituted for whole blood in transfusions. Dr. Drew’s medical breakthrough helped save thousands of lives by making more blood available to the many people who needed blood transfusions. Dr. Drew received his doctorate from medical science from Columbia in June 1940, becoming the first African-American to earn the degree there. After completing his fellowship, Dr. Drew returned to Howard as an assistant professor of surgery.

Dr. Drew was called back to New York in September 1940 to direct the Blood for Britain project. Great Britain was under attack by Germany and was in desperate need of blood and plasma to treat military members and civilians. Presbyterian Hospital and five other New York Hospitals began a collaborative effort to collect and ship plasma (the fluid, non-cellular portion of blood) to Britain. Although others had developed the basic methods of plasma use, Dr. Drew instituted uniform procedures and standards for collecting blood and processing blood plasma at the participating hospitals. When the program ended in 1941, Dr. Drew was appointed assistant director of a pilot program for a national blood banking system, jointly sponsored by the National Research Council and the American Red Cross. Among Dr. Drew’s innovations were mobile blood donation stations, later called “bloodmobiles”. While working on the Blood for Britain project, Dr. Drew also passed his American Board of Surgery exams, receiving certification early in 1941.

Also in 1941, the U.S. War Department declared “It is not advisable to collect and mix Caucasian and Negro blood indiscriminately for later admission to members of the military forces.” Ironically, due to this decree, Dr. Drew was unable to participate and donate blood to the very program that he helped to create. Dr. Drew withdrew from the pilot program in protest of this policy, which completely contradicted his research. Dr. Drew criticized this racist policy of segregating blood as unscientific and insulting to African-Americans. The U.S. War Department did not desegregate its banked blood supply until 1949.

After leaving the pilot project, Dr. Drew returned to Howard and became chair of the Department of Surgery and Chief of Surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital. Dr. Drew became the first African American to be appointed an examiner for the American Board of Surgery. For the next 9 years, Dr. Drew devoted himself to training and mentoring his medical students and surgical residents and raising the standards in black medical education. Dr. Drew also campaigned vigorously against the exclusion of black physicians from local medical societies, medical specialty organizations and the American Medical Association.

Dr. Drew’s innovative work was recognized by several awards and honors including the 1942 E.S. Jones Award for Research in Medical Science from the John A. Andrew Clinic in Tuskegee, AL; an appointment to the American-Soviet Committee on science in 1943; the 1944 Springarn Medal from the NAACP, for his work on blood and plasma; honorary doctorates from Virginia State College in 1945 and Amherst College in 1947; and election to the International College of Surgeons in 1946. Dr. Drew passed away on April 1, 1950 from injuries sustained in a car accident while on his way to a conference. Dr. Drew’s legacy lives on through his groundbreaking work on blood banks and through the generations of graduates he educated at Howard University College of Medicine.

Henrietta Lacks
You may not be familiar with the name Henrietta Lacks, but you most certainly have benefited from her legacy. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the “HeLa” cell line (“HeLa” comes from the first two letters of Ms. Lacks’ first and last name). The “HeLa” cell line are the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. The “HeLa” cell line has been studied since 1951 to produce numerous vaccines and perform various forms medical research due to their unique characteristics.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, VA on August 1, 1940. Pleasant worked as a tobacco farmer as a teenager and also became a young mother. Pleasant married David “Day” Lacks in 1941 and the family moved to Maryland in 1941. Ms. Lacks found work in Baltimore County, Maryland at a steel factory.

Ms. Lacks complained of pain in her womb and in January 1951, a large malignant tumor was discovered in her cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital by renowned gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones. Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of only a few hospitals to treat African-Americans at the time. Ms. Lacks began receiving radium treatments for her cervical cancer. A sample of her cancer cells, obtained during a biopsy, were sent to Dr. George Gey’s tissue lab. Dr. Gey was a prominent cancer and virus researcher who had been collecting cells from all patients, regardless of race, who came to Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer. However, each tissue sample quickly died in Dr. Gey’s lab, except for Ms. Lacks’ cells. Dr. Gey discovered that Ms. Lacks’ cells were unlike any other cancer cells that he had ever seen. Instead of dying, Ms. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours. Simply put, Ms. Lacks’ extraordinary cells not only refused to die, but multiplied and thrived outside of her body.

Ms. Lacks’ cells were considered to be the first “immortal” cell line and were used in the 1950s for polio vaccine research and beyond. Her “HeLa” cells were also the first cells to be successfully cloned. The HeLa cell line has been used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without having to experiment on human subjects. The HeLa cells have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome and to learn how viruses work. On October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, Ms. Lacks succumbed to the complications of cervical cancer.

The HeLa cell line were the first cells that could be easily shared and multiplied in a lab setting. Johns Hopkins claims that they did not sell or profit from the “discovery” or the distribution of the HeLa cells and that they have offered HeLa cells freely and widely for the purposes of scientific research. Since the 1970s, the descendants of Ms. Lacks have been in contact with researchers regarding the use of Ms. Lacks’ cells, but they were never involved in any decision about how her cells were used. In 2013, a complete genome of the HeLa cells was published by a group of scientists from the National Institutes of Health, without the involvement or consent of the Lacks family. This publication led to a discussion between Ms. Lacks’ descendants and NIH leadership regarding the use and exploitation of the HeLa cell line. A committee was created to oversee the development of the HeLa cells and how the cells are made available to other medical facilities. Two members of Ms. Lacks’ family are members of this committee.
Johns Hopkins admits that it does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line and that it should have done more to inform and work with the members of Ms. Lacks’ family. John Hopkins maintains that their collection and use of the HeLa cells was acceptable and legal in the 1950s, but would not be possible today without the patient’s consent. I think we can all agree that Ms. Lacks’ bodily autonomy was violated without any consideration of her personal privacy nor any respect for Ms. Lacks’ family or their privacy or personal interests regarding the cells taken from their family member.

In 2010, Rebecca Skloot published a book titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” describing Ms. Lacks’ fantastic cells and how they have been used to advance medical research. Ms. Skloot reached out to Ms. Lacks’ family and worked closely with Ms. Lacks’ late daughter, Deborah Lacks, on her book. Ms. Skloot’s book was made into a movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017.
Johns Hopkins is now committed to honoring the contribution of Henrietta Lacks to medical research and to the protection and safe keeping of the medical information of the Lacks’ family. A new multidisciplinary building on the Johns Hopkins East Baltimore campus is being built in honor of Henrietta Lacks. Although Ms. Lacks died 72 years ago, we are now just beginning to recognize and acknowledge the importance of her extraordinary contribution to medical research.

It makes me both proud and angry to read about the accomplishments of Dr. Charles Richard Drew and Ms. Henrietta Lacks. Dr. Drew was handpicked to oversee the creation of a blood banking system that saved countless military and civilian lives during a time of war. Yet the same military that his blood banking system benefited decreed that his blood and the blood of all African-Americans could not be provided to Caucasians. The military accepted his life saving work, but refused to allow him to participate in it. Henrietta Lacks simply presented herself for treatment at a hospital for a serious medical condition. Without her knowledge or consent, her remarkable cells were harvested, multiplied and distributed freely by that hospital without any consideration for her privacy or without even informing her family of the unique characteristics of her cells for many, many years. As detailed above, Ms. Lacks’ HeLa cells have been invaluable to medical research in studying AIDS, cancer, and for the development of hormones.

Dr. Drew chose to attend medical school in Canada where he would be treated more fairly. Despite his groundbreaking research, he was unable to obtain a surgical residency in the U.S. because most white patients refused to be treated by a black doctor. The singularly distinctive accomplishments of Dr. Drew and the invaluable contributions to medicine made by Dr. Drew and Ms. Henrietta Lacks are something that all Americans can be proud of. However, we cannot acknowledge their achievements without also acknowledging the history of racism towards African-Americans and people of color that both delayed and deprived them of the gratitude, respect and recognition they deserve. We have come a long way as a country, but we obviously still have a long way to go. The government and Jim Crow laws worked against these great Americans; but ultimately did not stop them from making important and long-lasting contributions to this nation. We are all grateful and better off for their perseverance in the worst of conditions. Their indefatigable spirit is an inspiration to all of us.

Source Materials:
Dr. Charles Richard Drew
Ms. Henrietta Lacks

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