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Karl Landsteiner


It had generally been accepted that polio was caused by a microorganism, but previous experiments by other researchers had failed to isolate a causative agent, which was presumed to be a bacterium. Because monkeys were hard to come by in Vienna, Landsteiner went to Paris to collaborate with a Romanian bacteriologist, Constantin Levaditi of the Pasteur Institute. Working together, the two were able to trace poliomyelitis to a virus, describe the manner of its transmission, time its incubation phase, and show how it could be neutralized in the laboratory when mixed with the serum of a convalescing patient. In 1912 Landsteiner said that the development of a vaccine against poliomyelitis might prove difficult but was certainly possible. The first successful intravenous polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, wasn't administered until 1955.

Landsteiner kept a grueling work schedule that allowed little time for social activity. He was serving at a war hospital in 1916 when, at the age of 48, he married Leopoldine Helene Wlasto. Helene bore a son christened Ernst Karl on April 8, 1917. After the war, Landsteiner's Austria was in chaos, with extreme shortages of food and fuel. He accepted a position as chief dissector in a small Catholic hospital in The Hague, Netherlands. There, from 1919 to 1922, he performed routine laboratory tests on urine and blood. Nevertheless, he managed to publish twelve papers on different aspects of immunology . It was during this time that Landsteiner began working on the concept of haptens, small molecular weight chemicals such as fats or sugars, that determine the specificity of antigen-antibody reactions when combined with a protein "carrier." He combined haptens of known structure with well-characterized proteins such as albumin, and showed that small changes in the hapten could affect antibody production. He developed methods to show that it is possible to sensitize animals to chemicals that cause contact dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) in humans, demonstrating that contact dermatitis is caused by an antigen-antibody reaction. This work launched Landsteiner into a study of the phenomenon of allergic reactions.

Post-War Europe Prompts Move to United States

In 1922, Landsteiner accepted a position at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. Throughout the 1920s Landsteiner worked on the problems of immunity and allergy. 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 in 1927, the types began to be used in paternity suits.

The Landsteiner family spent their summers in an isolated house on Nantucket that reminded Landsteiner of his Scheveningen home in the Netherlands. Landsteiner developed a profound dislike for his growing celebrity as the world's foremost authority on the mechanisms of immunity. He never got used to the noise and crowds of New York City, confessing to friends that he wished he could lock his family away when he was not home. Despite these problems, he became a United States citizen in 1929. Always shunning publicity, even avoiding offers to give public seminars, Landsteiner was stunned when he was besieged by reporters in 1930, upon the news that he had won the Nobel Prize.

In his Nobel lecture, Landsteiner gave an account of his work on individual differences in human blood, describing the differences in blood between different species and among individuals of the same species. This theory is accepted as fact today but was at odds with prevailing thought when Landsteiner began his work. In 1936 Landsteiner summed up his life's work in what was to become a medical classic: DIE SPEZIFITAT DER SEROLOGISCHEN REAKTIONEN, which was later revised and published in English, under the title THE SPECIFICITY OF SEROLOGICAL REACTIONS.

Landsteiner officially retired in 1939, at the age of seventy-one, but went on working. With [Alexander Wiener] he discovered another blood factor, labeled the Rh factor, for Rhesus monkeys, in which the factor was first discovered. The Rh factor was shown to be responsible for the dreaded infant disease, erythroblastosis fetalis, which occurs when mother and fetus have incompatible blood types and the fetus is injured by the mother's antibodies. During his later years, Landsteiner formed a friendship with Linus Pauling, the American biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954. Their discussions led Pauling to apply his knowledge to immunology and to contribute a chapter to the revised edition of Landsteiner's book, THE SPECIFICITY OF SEROLOGICAL REACTIONS.

Landsteiner was said to worry incessantly and was overcome toward the end of his life with fear that the Nazis would take over the civilized world. He began to fear for his family's lives. Something of a scandal developed when he tried to prevent publication of his Jewish descent. Later his fear of fascism was surpassed by the discovery that Helene had a malignant thyroid tumor. On June 14, 1943, Landsteiner celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday with his wife, Helene, and his son, who had completed medical school and was a practicing physician. On June 24, Landsteiner had just sent off the final revision of the manuscript for his book, when he was seized by a coronary obstruction. He died two days later on Saturday, June 26, 1943. Helene died the same year on Christmas day. Upon his death, tributes were published around the world, but no mention of his death was published in his native Austria or Germany until 1947, after the war and the defeat of Nazism.


  • DIE SPEZIFITÄT DER SEROLOGISCHEN REAKTIONEN, Julius Springer, 1933, revised and translated as THE SPECIFICITY OF SEROLOGICAL REACTIONS, Ernest K. Landsteiner), 1945.

Further Readings

  • Speiser, Paul P., KARL LANDSTEINER, Bruder Hollinek Wiener Neudorf, 1975.

  • Bendiner, Elmer, HOSPITAL PRACTICE, "Karl Landsteiner: Dissector of the Blood," March 30, 1991, pp. 93-104.

  • Heidelberger, Michael, BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS, "Karl Landsteiner," Volume 40, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 176-210.

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Source: From NOTABLE TWENTIETH-CENTURY SCIENTISTS. Gale Research, 1995. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.


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