Karl Landsteiner

Born: 14 June 1868, Vienna, Austria

Died: 26 June 1943, The Rockefeller University, New York, United States

When Karl Landsteiner identified three major human blood types: A, B, and O in 1900-1901, he revolutionized medicine, allowing for safe blood transfusions and the saving of millions of lives. He also advised that blood types be used to aid police investigations. He was given the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the ABO blood type system thirty years later.

Karl landsteiner
Karl Landsteiner (Image Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Landsteiner demonstrated that polio is a virus-borne disease in collaboration with Erwin Popper and that dark-field microscopy could be used to diagnose syphilis in collaboration with Viktor Mucha.

Landsteiner and his colleagues later identified the Rhesus factor in the blood, which proved to be another life-saving scientific achievement.

Beginnings

Karl Landsteiner was born on June 14, 1868, in Baden bei Wien, a spa town 16 miles south of Vienna, Austria’s capital city. He was the only child of a rich Jewish family.

Karl’s father, Leopold Landsteiner, was a lawyer and the editor-in-chief of Die Presse, a prestigious publication. Karl was seven years old when Leopold died.

Karl had a close relationship with his mother, Fanny, née Hess. Karl, who was 40 years old at the time of her death in 1908, had her death mask taken and kept it on his bedroom wall for the rest of his life.

Karl attended the State Grammar School in Linz, 115 miles west of Vienna, from the age of twelve. In 1885, at the age of 17, he enrolled in the medical school of the University of Vienna. He received his Doctor of General Medicine degree in 1891, just before his twenty-third birthday.

Karl Landsteiner and his mother converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism the year before he graduated, possibly in response to rising anti-Semitism in Vienna at the time.

Postdoctoral Work

Landsteiner became interested in organic chemistry while pursuing his medical degree. Rather than becoming a practicing physician, he chose to pursue a career in research. He worked for several years in Germany and Switzerland, acquiring cutting-edge laboratory techniques from some of the world’s most renowned organic chemists, including Emil Fischer.

Working in the surgical clinic at the University of Vienna put him in touch with medicine.

Discovery of Blood Groups

On January 1, 1896, at age 27, Landsteiner was appointed assistant in Vienna’s Institute of Hygiene. Working there, he developed a passion for immunology and especially the immune response of blood serum, the pale yellow liquid that carries all the substances in blood around the body.

He moved to the University of Vienna’s Pathology and Anatomy department the following year. He continued to work persistently on immunology and blood serum research, doing thousands of autopsies and producing 75 research publications, more than half of which dealt with serology, the study of bodily fluids such as blood serum.

Landsteiner researched the effects of combining red blood cells from one individual with serum from another at the age of thirty-two in 1900. He discovered that the mixes frequently caused red cell clumping or hemagglutination in medical terms. Other researchers thought hemagglutination was a disease-related response, whereas Landsteiner’s blood cells and serum were from healthy individuals.

Some blood and serum mixtures did not result in hemagglutination in Landsteiner’s trials, whereas others did. He came up with the names A, B, and C for the three blood groupings he discovered. These are now referred to as A, B, and O. Landsteiner’s colleagues followed his guidance and discovered a fourth kind, the AB group, in 1902.

There was no clumping when Landsteiner mixed blood from people of the same blood group. Hemagglutination, which he identified as an immunological reaction, could occur when blood from persons with different blood groups is mixed together. Blood transfusions had previously been abandoned by scientists due to the risk of serious sickness or death. Blood transfusions failed because incompatible blood types were combined, according to Landsteiner.

Syphilis

Landsteiner’s next discovery came in the form of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. He was the first scientist to discover how to infect monkeys with syphilis in 1905, paving the way for more investigation. Landsteiner discovered dark-field microscopy could be used to diagnose syphilis by detecting the bacterium that causes the disease, Treponema pallidum, the following year while working with Viktor Mucha.

Polio

Landsteiner was named chief of pathology at the Wilhelmina Hospital in Vienna in 1908. In the same year, he and his colleague Erwin Popper successfully infected animals with poliomyelitis and identified the illness agent as a virus, proving that it is an infectious disease.

Haptens – Landsteiner’s Most Important Work

Landsteiner left Vienna in 1919, at the age of 53, for The Hague, the Dutch capital. He did what he considered his best and most important work there, at the Catholic St. Joannes de Deo hospital. He claimed that practically anyone could have figured out the blood group system; it was merely a stroke of luck that he did. His discovery of haptens in 1921, on the other hand, was unique. At the time, he believed only a few people could have pulled it off.

Landsteiner used the term haptens to describe very small molecules that do not generate an immunological response in the body on their own. They generate an immunological response when they are linked to a large carrier, such as a protein. Landsteiner was the first to use synthetic haptens, which are small molecules that are added to proteins to generate immunological responses. He made a significant contribution to immune system chemistry in the process.

More Blood Groups

Landsteiner arrived in New York City with his wife and son in the spring of 1923. He had been offered full membership in the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, which he had accepted.

Landsteiner, in collaboration with Philip Levine, identified three new blood types in 1927: M, N, and P.

The Rhesus Factor

Landsteiner and Alexander S. Wiener discovered the Rhesus factor, today known as the Rh factor, in 1937. Their work was published in 1940.

The Rh blood system has different antigens on the surface of red blood cells than the ABO group blood system.

Rh-positive blood is found in the majority of persons. If an Rh-negative woman has an Rh-positive baby, the mother’s immune system may attack the infant as it grows. The discovery of the Rh factor led to the development of techniques to prevent the mother from generating antibodies against the baby in her womb.

The discovery of the Rh factor also explained the fact that blood transfusions between people with ABO compatible groups sometimes led to problems. After the Rh factor’s discovery, a plus or minus sign was added to a person’s ABO blood group. For example, people whose blood was once classed as A, are now classed as A+ or A-.

Honors

Landsteiner received several highly prestigious awards and honors including:

· 1911 – Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

· 1926 – Aronson Prize for achievements in microbiology and immunology.

· 1930 – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

· 1930 – Paul Ehrlich Medal.

· 1932 – Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences.

· 1933 – Dutch Red Cross Medal.

· 1938 – Cameron Prize.

· 1941 – Elected Honorary foreign member, Royal Society.

· 1946 – (Posthumously) Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award.

Personal Details and The End

Landsteiner married Leopoldine Helene Wlasto, a Greek Orthodox Church member, in 1916 when he was 48 years old. She converted to her husband’s Roman Catholic beliefs before they married.

Ernst Karl, Leopoldine’s only child, was born in 1917 and went on to become a surgeon. Ernst was born in Vienna during the Great War when many people were starving. Landsteiner purchased a goat to supply milk for his family and went foraging for herbs himself, concerned about his family’s health. Landsteiner and his family lived in the village of Purkersdorf, about 10 miles from Vienna’s center, which Landsteiner considered was a healthier environment for a family.

Landsteiner and his family became American citizens in 1929, six years after arriving in the United States.

Landsteiner sued an American publisher in 1937 for placing him in the book Who’s Who in American Jewry, claiming that he was not a Jew because he had converted to Roman Catholicism nearly five decades before. “It will be damaging to me to promote publicly the religion of my forefathers,” Landsteiner remarked. He was unsuccessful in his lawsuit.

Landsteiner was a gifted pianist and a secret fan of detective books, something he was embarrassed about because he believed someone with his background should read more cultural literature.

In 1939, Landsteiner was named an Emeritus Member of the Rockefeller Institute, but he refused to retire and continued to work with energy. Landsteiner worked even harder after his wife Leopoldine was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, searching for a way to save her life. His wife died on Christmas day six months later. Survived by their son Ernst, they were buried side by side in the Prospect Hill Cemetery, Nantucket, Massachusetts.

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