Karl Landsteiner Biography (1868-1943)


Karl Landsteiner, who has been called the father of immunology, was the onlychild of Leopold Landsteiner, a prominent Austrian journalist and editor, andFanny Hess Landsteiner. Landsteiner was educated at the University of Vienna, where he received his medical degree in 1891. While in medical school, Landsteiner began experimental work in chemistry, as he was greatly inspired by Ernst Ludwig, one of his professors. After receiving his medical degree, Landsteiner spent the next five years doing advanced research in organic chemistryfor Emil Fischer, although medicine remained his chief interest. During 1886-1897, he combined these interests at the Institute of Hygiene at the University of Vienna where he researched immunology and serology. These fields weredeveloping rapidly in the late 1800s as scientists explored numerous physiological changes associated with bacterial infection. Immunology and serology then became Landsteiner's lifelong focus. Landsteiner was primarily interestedin the lack of safety and effectiveness of blood transfusions. Prior to his work, blood transfusions were dangerous and underutilized because the donor's blood frequently clotted in the patient. Landsteiner was intrigued bythe fact that when blood from different subjects was mixed, the blood did notalways clot. He believed there were intrinsic biochemical similarities and dissimilarities in blood. He was unsure, however, whether clotting was primarily a function of disease or a result of individual differences.

By 1901 Landsteiner discovered the answer. Using blood samples from his colleagues, he separated the blood's cells from its serum, and suspended the red blood cells in a saline solution. He then mixed each individual's serum with asample from every cell suspension. Clotting occurred in some cases; in others there was no clotting. Landsteiner determined that human beings could be separated into blood groups according to the capacity of their red cells to clot in the presence of different serums. He named his blood classification groups A, B, and O. A fourth group AB, was discovered the following year. The result of this work was that patient and donor could be blood-typed beforehand,making blood transfusion a safe and routine medical practice. This discoveryultimately earned Landsteiner the 1930 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

In 1927, Landsteiner and Philip Levine (1900-1987) also discovered two otherinheritable factors, M and N, which do not affect transfusions. There exist two other practical applications of Landsteiner's blood classification work. The first is the significance of blood grouping in cases of disputed paternity. Today, most paternity questions are settled by very exact serological (blood typing) means. Second, Landsteiner's work provided the foundation for the field of forensic serology. Blood stains became serological "fingerprints" used to distinguish one person from another due to blood types being inheritable. Due to Landsteiner's outstanding achievements, in 1908 he was appointed chief of pathology at the University of Vienna. During the same year he became the first to isolate the poliomyelitis virus and was also the first touse monkeys as an experimental animal in polio research.

Landsteiner left the University of Vienna in 1919 and accepted a position inHolland due to the civil disorders in Vienna caused by World War I, as well as the lack of funding and facilities for research. In 1922 he accepted an offer to join the staff of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in NewYork. He became an American citizen in 1929, and remained at the Institute for the rest of his life. Landsteiner continued his blood group research withLevine and Alexander Weiner and in 1940 discovered the Rhesus (Rh) factor during studies with the Rhesus monkey. The Rh factor is important in both bloodtransfusions and in pregnancy. If Rh-positive blood is introduced into the circulation of an Rh-negative person, it is recognized as foreign and the recipient may form antibodies capable of destroying the Rh-positive red blood cells. Erythroblastosis fetalis, a blood disease in newborn infants, is linked to this factor. Knowledge of the Rh factor led to ways of preventing brain damage, severe jaundice and death caused by the disease. Landsteiner retired from his post at the Rockefeller Institute in 1939, but continued his laboratory research. In 1943 he suffered a fatal heart attack whileat his laboratory bench.

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