Karl Landsteiner

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Karl Landsteiner
Born (1868-06-14)June 14, 1868
Baden bei Wien (near Vienna), Austria-Hungary
Died June 26, 1943(1943-06-26) (aged 75)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Residence Austria
United States of America
Citizenship Austrian - American
Nationality Austrian
Fields Medicine, virology
Institutions University of Vienna
Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York
Alma mater University of Vienna
Known for Development of blood group system, discovery of Rh factor, discovery of poliovirus
Notable awards

Karl Landsteiner, ForMemRS[1] (June 14, 1868 – June 26, 1943), was an Austrian and American biologist and physician.[2] He is noted for having first distinguished the main blood groups in 1900 (however, Jan Janský described and distinguished main blood groups before him), having developed the modern system of classification of blood groups from his identification of the presence of agglutinins in the blood, and having identified, with Alexander S. Wiener, the Rhesus factor, in 1937, thus enabling physicians to transfuse blood without endangering the patient′s life. With Constantin Levaditi and Erwin Popper, he discovered the polio virus in 1909. He received the Aronson Prize in 1926. In 1930 he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was awarded a Lasker Award in 1946 posthumously and is recognized as the father of transfusion medicine.[3]

Start of an academic career

Landsteiner’s father, Leopold (1818–1875), a renowned Viennese journalist who was editor-in-chief of Die Presse, died at age 56, when Karl was only 6. This led to a close relationship between Landsteiner and his mother Fanny (née Hess; 1837–1908). After graduating with the Matura exam from a Vienna secondary school, he took up the study of medicine at the University of Vienna and wrote his doctoral thesis in 1891. While still a student he published an essay on the influence of diets on the composition of blood.

From 1891 to 1893, Landsteiner studied chemistry in Würzburg under Hermann Emil Fischer, in München under Eugen Bamberger and in Zürich under Arthur Rudolf Hantzsch. A number of publications from that period, some of them in co-operation with his professors, show that he did not restrict himself to hearing lectures.[4]

Landsteiner had to endure continual hardships in Europe until he was invited to accept a position at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in the United States in 1922.

Research work in Vienna – Discovery of the polio virus

After returning to Vienna he became an assistant to Max von Gruber at the Hygienic Institute. In his studies he concentrated on the mechanism of immunity and the nature of antibodies. From November 1897 to 1908 Landsteiner was an assistant at the pathological-anatomical institute of the University of Vienna under Anton Weichselbaum, where he published 75 papers, dealing with issues in serology, bacteriology, virology and pathological anatomy. In addition he did some 3,600 autopsies in those ten years. Weichselbaum was Landsteiner’s tutor for his postdoctoral lecture qualification in 1903.[5] From 1908 to 1920 Landsteiner was prosector at the Wilhelminenspital in Vienna and in 1911 he was sworn in as an associate professor of pathological anatomy. During that time he discovered – in co-operation with Erwin Popper – the infectious character of Poliomyelitis and isolated the polio virus.[6] In recognition of this groundbreaking discovery, which proved to be the basis for the fight against polio, he was posthumously inducted into the Polio Hall of Fame at Warm Springs, Georgia, which was dedicated in January 1958.

Discovery of the blood groups

Karl Landsteiner working in his lab in Vienna, (reverse of 1,000-schilling bank note, 1997)

In 1900 Karl Landsteiner found out that the blood of two people under contact agglutinates, and in 1901 he found that this effect was due to contact of blood with blood serum. As a result he succeeded in identifying the three blood groups A, B and O, which he labelled C, of human blood. Landsteiner also found out that blood transfusion between persons with the same blood group did not lead to the destruction of blood cells, whereas this occurred between persons of different blood groups.[7] Based on his findings, in 1907 the first successful blood transfusion was performed by Reuben Ottenberg at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Today it is well known that persons with blood group AB can accept donations of the other blood groups, and that persons with blood group O can donate to all other groups. Individuals with blood group AB are referred to as universal recipients and those with blood group O are known as universal donors. These donor-recipient relationships arise due to the fact that persons with AB do not form antibodies against either blood group A or B. Further, because type O blood possesses neither characteristic A nor B, the immune systems of persons with blood group AB do not refuse the donation. In today’s blood transfusions only concentrates of red blood cells without serum are transmitted, which is of great importance in surgical practice. In 1930 Landsteiner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of these achievements. For his pioneering work, he is recognized as the father of transfusion medicine.[8]

Research work in Holland and the United States

Landsteiner bronze bust at Warm Springs

After World War I, Vienna and the new republic of Austria as a whole was in a desolate economic state, a situation in which Landsteiner did not see any possibilities to carry on with his research work. He decided to move to Holland and accepted a post as prosector in the small Catholic Ziekenhuis hospital in The Hague and, in order to improve his financial situation also took a job in a small factory, producing old tuberculin (tuberculinum prestinum).[9] He also published a number of papers, five of them being published in Dutch by the Royal Academy of Sciences. Yet working conditions proved to be not much better than in post-war Vienna. So Landsteiner accepted the invitation that reached him from New York, initiated by Simon Flexner, who was familiar with Landsteiner's work, to work for the Rockefeller Institute. He arrived there with his family in the spring of 1923. Throughout the 1920s Landsteiner worked on the problems of immunity and allergy. In 1927 he discovered new blood groups: M, N and P, refining the work he had begun 20 years before. Soon after Landsteiner and his collaborator, Philip Levine, published the work and, in 1927, the types began to be used in paternity suits.

In the field of bacteriology, Landsteiner and Clara Nigg succeeded in 1930–1932 in culturing Rickettsia prowazekii, the causative agent of typhus, on living media.

Awards and honours

Landsteiner was posthumously awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 1946 and elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1941.[1]

Personal life

Landsteiner converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism in 1890.[10] In 1916 he married Leopoldine Helene Wlasto, a Greek Orthodox who converted to her husband's Roman Catholic faith. In 1937 Landsteiner took legal action against an American publisher who had included him in the book Who's Who in American Jewry, stating that "it will be detrimental to me to emphasize publicly the religion of my ancestors."[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Rous, P. (1947). "Karl Landsteiner. 1868-1943". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 5 (15): 294–226. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1947.0002.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Karl Landsteiner", Jewish Virtual Library
  3. Speiser, Paul (1990). Karl Landsteiner: Entdecker der Blutgruppen und Pionier der Immunologie (3rd ed.). Berlin. ISBN 3-89412-084-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Dreiser, Karl Landsteiner, p. 24
  5. Speiser, Karl Landsteiner, p. 33
  6. Landsteiner, K.; Popper, E. (1909). "Übertragung der Poliomyelitis acuta auf Affen". Zeitschrift für Immunitätsforschung und experimentelle Therapie. 2: 377–390.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Landsteiner, Karl (1900). "Zur Kenntnis der antifermentativen, lytischen und agglutinierenden Wirkungen des Blutserums und der Lymphe". Centralblatt f. Bakteriologie, Parasitenkunde u. Infektionskrankheiten. 27: 357–362.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Homage to scientist on Blood Donor's Day". The Tribune. June 15, 2006. Retrieved January 14, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Speiser, Karl Landsteiner p. 63
  10. Anna L. Staudacher: "… meldet den Austritt aus dem mosaischen Glauben". 18000 Austritte aus dem Judentum in Wien, 1868–1914: Namen – Quellen – Daten. Peter Lang, Frankfurt, 2009, ISBN 978-3-631-55832-4, p. 349
  11. http://www.jta.org/1937/04/06/archive/dr-landsteiner-sues-to-escape-being-labelled-jew

External links