Immunologist; Identifier of Human Blood Types
He is best known for the identification and characterization of human blood types.
Landsteiner was born on June 14, 1868, in Vienna, Austria. He received a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1891, and for the next five years he learned to apply chemical principles to medical problems while working with prominent biochemists such as Emil Fischer and Max von Gruber. By 1897 he had begun independent serological investigations at Vienna’s Institute of Pathology.
In 1900 Landsteiner published a paper describing the agglutination (clumping) that occurs when the blood of two or more people is combined. He attributed the phenomenon to incompatibility among three distinct types of blood, dubbing them A, B, and C (later called O). Two colleagues added the group AB the following year. Landsteiner subsequently demonstrated the biochemical difference among blood types: blood of each type contains unique substances (called antigens) that trigger an immune response, such as agglutination, when they come in contact with blood of a different type.
From 1908 to 1920 Landsteiner served as director of Wilhemina Hospital in Vienna, where he continued to study serological immunity (immunity relating to blood fluids). He was among the first to dissociate antigens from antibodies (the substances that are produced in response to antigens), a distinction important in the study of immunological mechanisms. He developed novel experimental techniques that advanced the understanding of syphilis and poliomyelitis and discovered that the latter’s causative agent is a virus rather than a bacterium.
Landsteiner moved to the United States in 1922 to take a position at Rockefeller Institute in New York. There he identified the M, N, R and Rh factors present in human blood, which further characterized the differences among the properties and immune reactions of people’s blood. In 1930 his achievements in serology earned him the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He completed a summary of his life’s work, titled The Specificity of Serological Reactions, in 1936. He died in New York City on June 26, 1943.
Karl Landsteiner’s Legacy
Landsteiner’s achievements revolutionized the understanding of blood related medical conditions and helped establish the biochemical basis of immunity.
The identification of blood types made transfusions possible. Prior to 1900, blood transfusions were only occasionally successful; Landsteiner’s discovery of incompatible blood types explained the many failures. By 1907 the laboratory techniques for determining blood type had been refined and compatible blood types could be matched for transfusions. During World War I, blood transfusions saved the lives of scores of injured soldiers and civilians.
Blood transfusions are used today to overcome numerous potentially fatal situations. Transfusions replace blood lost during hemorrhaging, restore blood plasma depleted during the healing of severe burns, maintain healthy levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin in cases of chronic anemia, and provide the blood coagulation factors that are missing in certain blood disorder cases.
The discovery of the M, N, and P blood factors provided a valuable forensic tool. Scientists could describe and identify people’s blood using the combination of their blood type and the presence or absence of blood factors. They could therefore match blood samples found at crime scenes to some suspects and rule out those suspects whose blood did not match.
In the 1920s blood factors were shown to be inherited, which allowed their use in paternity disputes, genetics research, and studies of human evolution.
Understanding the Rh factor allowed the detection and prevention of a devastating pregnancy related condition. When a pregnancy involves a woman and fetus with mismatched Rh factors, erythroblastosis fetalis can result, leading to brain damage and sometimes death of the fetus. Tests of Rh factor can identify incompatible blood, and precautions can be taken.
Karl Landsteiner – 1868-1943