On this new season of the StoryCorps Podcast, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers. People who pushed boundaries and broke barriers. For our first episode, we’re kicking things off with two stories about medical breakthroughs that came at the hands of two very talented Black men.

In the 1940s, Dr. Charles Drew was a prominent surgeon, living with his wife and four children in Washington, D.C. He was a multifaceted man who trained surgeons and physicians. While he was the chief of surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington D.C., now called Howard University hospital, Dr. Drew conducted a lot of research centered around blood. From storing and transfusing, to everything in between. 

Photo: Dr. Charles Drew in his lab. Courtesy of Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis.

During World War II, Dr. Drew was recruited to head the Blood for Britain Project. His goal was to discover how to safely store and transport blood needed on the battlefield. He achieved that goal, and because of his work, thousands of lives were saved.

After the war, Dr. Drew continued his life-saving research despite the fact that The Red Cross had a policy that required blood to be segregated based on race. Dr. Drew argued against the segregation of blood, but he sadly would not live to see the reversal of this policy. He died in a car accident on April 1, 1950. The discriminatory practice was ended later that year. Dr. Drew’s daughter, Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis, came to StoryCorps with her son, Ernest Drew Jarvis, to remember Dr. Drew and his work.

Photo: Ernest Drew Jarvis and Charlene Drew Jarvis in recent years. Courtesy of Ernest Jarvis

Around the same time Dr. Drew was researching blood in D.C., Vivien Thomas was making breakthroughs in surgery in Baltimore.

Photo: Dr. Thomas in his lab. Public Domain. 

As a kid, Vivien had dreams of being a doctor and enrolled in college as pre-med. But in 1929, when the stock market crashed, his finances took a hit, causing him to drop out. At the age of 19 and without a degree, Vivien managed to secure a job as an assistant to a surgeon named Dr. Alfred Blalock. 

Eventually, Vivien Thomas became the director of Surgical Research Laboratories at Johns Hopkins University, where he invented several surgical tools and methods, many of which are still used today. He is most notably credited with identifying a solution for a deadly condition known as Blue Baby Syndrome. Johns Hopkins University gave Dr. Vivien Thomas an honorary doctorate in 1976.

Dr. Thomas also passed down the knowledge he learned from Dr. Blalock by training other aspiring surgeons, like Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris, who came to StoryCorps to remember him. 

Photo: Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris at their StoryCorps interview in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Alletta Cooper for StoryCorps. 
Top photo: Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Released on December 7th, 2021.