Karl Landsteiner was one of the first scientists to study the physical processes of
immunity. He is best known for his identification and characterization of the human blood
groups, A, B, and O, but his contributions spanned many areas of immunology,
bacteriology and pathology over a prolific forty-year career. Landsteiner identified the
agents responsible for immune reactions, examined the interaction of antigens and
antibodies, and studied allergic reactions in experimental animals. He determined the
viral cause of poliomyelitis with research that laid the foundation for the eventual
development of a polio vaccine. He also discovered that some simple chemicals, when
linked to proteins, produced an immune response. Near the end of his career in 1940, he
and [Alexander Wiener] discovered the Rh factor, which helped save the lives
of many fetuses with mismatched Rh factor from their mothers. For his work identifying
the human blood groups, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1930.
Born June 14, 1868, Landsteiner was the only child of Dr. Leopold Landsteiner, a famous
Viennese journalist, and Fanny Hess Landsteiner. Leopold Landsteiner was the Paris
correspondent for several German newspapers and the founder of the daily PRESSE, an
influential liberal newspaper. The family lived in Baden bei Wien, an upper-middle-class
suburb of Vienna. Karl was six years old when his father suffered a massive heart attack
and died. Karl was placed under the guardianship of a family friend, but remained
extremely close to his mother.
In 1885, when he was seventeen, Landsteiner passed the entrance examination for
medical school at the University of Vienna, where early in his training he expressed
enthusiasm for the study of chemistry. He took a year off from school at the age of
twenty for his obligatory military service. When he was twenty-one, Landsteiner and his
mother converted from Judaism to Catholicism and Karl was christened Karl Otto
Landsteiner. Landsteiner graduated from medical school at the age of 23 and
immediately began advanced studies in the field of organic chemistry, working in the
research laboratory of his mentor, Ernst Ludwig . In Ludwig's laboratory Landsteiner's
interest in chemistry blossomed into a passion for approaching medical problems
through a chemist's eye.
For the next ten years, Landsteiner worked in a number of laboratories in Europe,
studying under some of the most celebrated chemists of the day: Emil Fischer, a
celebrated protein chemist who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1902,
in Wurzburg; Eugen von Bamberger in Munich; and Arthur Hantzsch and Roland Scholl in
Zurich. Landsteiner published many journal articles with these famous scientists. The
knowledge he gained about organic chemistry during these formative years guided him
throughout his career. The nature of antibodies began to interest him while he was
serving as an assistant to Max von Gruber in the Department of Hygiene at the University
of Vienna from 1896 to 1897. During this time Landsteiner published his first article on
the subject of bacteriology and serology, the study of blood. He had found a subject that
was to occupy his entire scientific career.
Discovers Blood Types
Landsteiner moved to Vienna's Institute of Pathology in 1897, where he was hired to
perform autopsies. He continued to study immunology and the mysteries of blood on his
own time. In 1900, Landsteiner wrote a paper in which he described the agglutination of
blood that occurs when one person's blood is brought into contact with that of another.
He suggested that the phenomenon was not a pathology, as was the prevalent thought
at the time, but was due to the unique nature of the individual's blood. In 1901,
Landsteiner demonstrated that the blood serum of some people could clump the blood
of others. From his observations he devised the idea of mutually incompatible blood
groups. He placed blood types into three groups: A, B, and C (later referred to as O).
Two of his colleagues subsequently added a fourth group, AB.
In 1907 the first successful transfusions were achieved by Dr. Reuben Ottenberg of Mt.
Sinai Hospital, New York, guided by Landsteiner's work. Landsteiner's accomplishment
saved many lives on the battlefields of World War I, where transfusion of compatible
blood was first performed on a large scale. In 1902 Landsteiner was appointed as a full
member of the Imperial Society of Physicians in Vienna. That same year he presented a
lecture, together with Max Richter of the Vienna University Institute of Forensic Medicine,
in which the two reported a new method of typing dried blood stains to help solve crimes
in which blood stains are left at the scene.
In 1908 Landsteiner took charge of the department of pathology at the Wilhelmina
Hospital in Vienna. His tenure at the hospital lasted twelve years, until March of 1920.
During this time, Landsteiner was at the height of his career and produced fifty-two
papers on serological immunity, thirty-three on bacteriology and six on pathological
anatomy. He was among the first to dissociate antigens, which stimulate the production
of immune responses known as antibodies, from the antibodies themselves. Landsteiner
was also among the first to purify antibodies, and his purification techniques are still
used today for some applications in immunology.
Landsteiner also collaborated with Ernest Finger, the head of Vienna's Clinic for Venereal
Diseases and Dermatology. In 1905, Landsteiner and Finger successfully transferred the
venereal disease syphilis from humans to apes. The result was that researchers had an
animal model in which to study the disease. In 1906, Landsteiner and Viktor Mucha, a
scientist from the Chemical Institute at Finger's clinic, developed the technique of
dark-field microscopy to identify and study the microorganisms that cause syphilis.
Works Toward Polio Vaccine
One day in 1908 the body of a young polio victim was brought in for autopsy.
Landsteiner took a portion of the boy's spinal column and injected it into the spinal canal
of several species of experimental animals, including rabbits, guinea-pigs, mice and
monkeys. Only the monkeys contracted the disease. Landsteiner reported the results of
the experiment, conducted with Erwin Popper, an assistant at the Wilhelmina Hospital.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.