Thirteen/WNET PBS

Innovators & Pioneers

Reuben Ottenberg

Born: 1882
Died: 1959
Nationality: American
Occupation: physician, hematologist

Appointed the George Blumenthal, Jr. Fellow in pathology in 1908, Dr. Ottenberg served Mount Sinai Hospital with distinction for 50 years and became one of its most productive physicians in the first half of the 20th century. Born in New York, Ottenberg received his B.A. from Columbia University in 1902 and his M.D. degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons three years later.

Ottenberg's first paper, "Transfusion and Arterial Anastomosis" (ANNALS OF SURGERY, 1908), won the prize for the best paper of the year by a member of the house staff. Ottenberg describes an experimental study of performing sutureless arterial anastomoses utilizing tiny silver rings held in place by silver wire, rather than sutures, in animals for use in direct transfusion and then describes its use in two patients being transfused. He notes that the blood was tested for compatibility prior to use; the first report anywhere of the clinical use of compatibility testing. Years later Ottenberg was to note, "The subject is only brought in incidentally in a footnote. I was still an intern and did not realize how important the testing was to become. I should have made a separate article."

Serving first in the clinical microscopy and pathology laboratories and then in the clinics, Ottenberg was appointed to the inpatient attending staff in 1920. While maintaining a busy practice and serving on the teaching service, Ottenberg continued to make fundamental contributions to medicine, especially the evolving field of hematology. In all, he published almost 100 papers. In notes accompanying his bibliography, Ottenberg indicated that in addition to the first use of blood testing for transfusion compatibility, his most important investigative work was the first observation that patient antibodies against donor red cells could be harmful but not vice versa. This report, coming shortly before World War I led to the use of Group O individuals as universal donors.

In 1923, Ottenberg reported that jaundice and hemolytic anemia of the newborn might be due to blood incompatibility of mother and child. Drs. Landsteiner's and Levine's discovery of the Rh factor almost 20 years later proved Ottenberg correct. He was also the first to suggest that human blood groups are inherited according to Mendel's law, and with Dr. Nathan Rosenthal described a new method of counting platelets using sodium citrate, a technique that remained in standard use for decades. He observed that in septicemia, the largest number of bacteria is found at the time when the temperature is just beginning to rise rather than at the height of the spike.

Ottenberg also wrote a number of important papers based on his clinical work, including studies on the diagnosis of painless jaundice, the toxic effect of sulfonamides, and septicemia following trauma. Suffering from stenosis of the internal carotid artery, Ottenberg reported his own case in 1955, four years before his death. In a matter of fact manner, he described his TIAs, his episodes of arnaurosis fugax, and the stroke from which he recovered.

In 1954, Ottenberg received the Karl Landsteiner Award of the American Society of Blood Banks for "distinguished pioneering contributions to blood banking and hemotherapy." After noting his many contributions the award went on to state, "Everyone of these were milestones in the growth of our knowledge of blood groups and formed the basis for the subsequent development of blood transfusions."

In 1955 Mount Sinai Hospital honored Ottenberg when he was awarded the coveted Jacobi Medallion for his many years of service to the institution and for his monumental contributions to medicine.

Source: The Gustave L. and Janet W. Levy Library, Mount Sinai School of Medicine.