Amidst the grim backdrop of a war-torn Vienna, Karl Landsteiners
scientific explorations in the areas of hematology, immunology and bacteriology
cemented his place in history as one of the most influential figures in modern
medicine. Though the environment was not ideal for making significant strides
in research, Landsteiner resolutely pursued his theories, eventually relocating
to make his investigations possible.
His international sojourns included stints at the Pasteur Institute in
Paris; RK Ziekenhuis, Catholic Hospital in The Hague, Holland; and the
Rockefeller Institute in New York, where he spent much of his career. All the
while, Landsteiners innovative conclusions and chemists
approach to immunology earned him worldwide recognition as the premier
expert on the mechanisms of immunity, bestowing unwanted fame on the very
Austrian stamp issued to commemorate the 100th year from
Source: S Shulman
Yet, no matter how much he disliked publicity, Landsteiner could not
avoid the renown that accompanied his winning the Nobel Prize for discovering
the four blood groups. However, Landsteiners forays into other
immunological and hematological studies greatly contributed to his role as a
major, groundbreaking figure in the medical world as well.
Landsteiner was born on June 14, 1868, in Vienna, the sole child of
doctor-of-law and famous Viennese journalist, Leopold Landsteiner, and his wife
Fanny Hess Landsteiner. When Landsteiner was 6 years old, his father died from
a massive heart attack. Landsteiner was then raised by a family friend but
maintained a close bond with his mother.
At the age of 17, Landsteiner entered medical school at the University
of Vienna. There, he demonstrated a significant interest in chemistry. After
taking a year off from school to complete his military service, Landsteiner
commenced training at the Second Clinic for Internal Medicine in 1891.
Eventually, after graduation from medical school, his passion for chemistry led
him to pursue advanced studies in the field of organic chemistry under his
mentor Ernst Ludwig.
For the next 10 years, Landsteiner spent time in some of the most
renowned laboratories throughout Europe. He worked with the Nobel Prize-winning
Emil Fischer, a protein chemist, in Wurzburg; Eugen von Bamberger in Munich;
and Arthur Hantzsch and Roland Scholl in Zurich. During this time, Landsteiner
published many journal articles with these distinguished scientists and
acquired significant knowledge about chemistry that fostered his interest in
After serving under Max von Gruber at the University of Viennas
Institute of Hygiene, Landsteiner transferred to the department of pathological
anatomy in 1897 where immunology and serology occupied his independent studies.
It was here that Landsteiner made his most famous discovery.
In 1900, Landsteiner published a paper that made the first mention of
the isoagglutination of human blood, proposing that the occurrence was linked
with the uniqueness of an individuals blood as opposed to having a
One year later, Landsteiner cross tested sera and red cells from
scientists working in his lab, including his own. His findings revealed that
blood from certain scientists caused the blood of others to clump, suggesting
the existence of at least two antibody classes. Landsteiner promptly dubbed
them anti-A and anti-B. Eventually, his valuable conclusions led to the
identification of the four blood groups: A, B, O, and AB. Consequently,
Landsteiners discovery laid the groundwork for the first successful blood
transfusions in 1907.
Landsteiner also suggested other uses for his findings. In 1902, he
recommended that blood grouping could be used in paternity cases as well as
proposing its forensic application in the solving of crimes where blood stains
were left on the scene.
During this time, Landsteiners intense work schedule afforded him
little free time. Even so, in 1916, he married Helene Wlasto with whom he had a
son, Ernst Karl, who would later become a doctor as well.
In addition to his celebrated revelations regarding blood typing,
Landsteiner also labored to devise a polio vaccine. After performing an autopsy
on a young boy with polio, he conducted numerous experiments that involved
injecting the disease into various animals.
His studies brought him to the Pasteur Institute where he and other
scientists were able to connect poliomyelitis to a viral cause. Though a
vaccine would not be made until years later, Landsteiners research
provided the foundation for its creation.
Landsteiners work with syphilis during this period also was
noteworthy. He not only pioneered the usage of dark-field microscopy to detect
the spirochetes of syphilis, but also worked diligently by examining the
diseases human-to-animal transmission, hoping to find antibodies related
Additionally, from 1919 to 1922, Landsteiners background in
chemistry inspired him to investigate haptens to establish the specificity of
serological reactions. His examination of these antigen-antibody reactions
ultimately led him to explore the chemical and immunological basis of skin
sensitization and allergy.
Landsteiner relocated permanently in 1922, finally accepting a position
at the Rockefeller Institute. Though Landsteiner officially retired in 1939, he
went on to collaborate with Alexander Wiener. The two scientists discovered the
Rhesus (Rh) factor in 1940, supplying the pathophysiological basis for
erythroblastosis and illustrating the relationship between a mother and a
fetuss blood types and antibodies.
Landsteiner suffered a coronary obstruction and died on June 26, 1943.
His lifes work was collected and published as The Specificity of
Serological Reactions. by Melissa Foster
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