Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Karl Landsteiner (June 14, 1868 – June 26, 1943)

Karl Land
Born June 14, 1868
Baden bei Wien, near Vienna (Austria)
Died June 26, 1943 (aged 75)
New York City
Residence United States
Nationality United States
Fields Medicine, Virology,

University of Vienna

Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York
Alma mater University of Vienna
Known for

development of blood group system discovery of Rh factor

discovery of poliovirus
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1930)

Karl Landsteiner (June 14, 1868 – June 26, 1943), was an Austrian biologist and physician. He is noted for his development in 1901 of the modern system of classification of blood groups from his identification of the presence of agglutinins in the blood, and in 1930 he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. With Alexander S. Wiener, he identified the Rh factor in 1937. Landsteiner and Erwin Popper discovered the polio virus in 1909. He was awarded a Lasker Award in 1946 posthumously.

Start of an academic career

Landsteiner's father Leopold (1818–1875), a renowned Viennese journalist, died at age 56, when Karl was 6. This led to a close relationship between Landsteiner and his mother Fanny (née Hess), (1837–1908). He kept her death mask all his life in his bedroom. After graduating with the Matura exam from a Vienna secondary school he took up the study of medicine at the University of Vienna and wrote his doctoral thesis in 1891. While still a student he published an essay on the influence of diets on the composition of blood.

From 1891 to 1893 Landsteiner studied chemistry in Würzburg under Hermann Emil Fischer, München under Eugen Bamberger and Zürich under Arthur Rudolf Hantzsch. A number of publications from that period, some of them in co-operation with his professors, show that he did not restrict himself to hearing lectures.[1]

Research work in Vienna - Discovery of the polio virus

After returning to Vienna he became an assistant to Max von Gruber at the Hygienic Institute. In his studies he concentrated on the mechanism of immunity and the nature of antibodies. From November 1897 to 1908 Landsteiner was an assistant at the pathological-anatomical institute of the University of Vienna under Anton Weichselbaum, where he published 75 papers, dealing with issues in serology, bacteriology, virology and pathological anatomy. In addition he did some 3,600 autopsies in those ten years. Weichselbaum was Landsteiner's tutor for his postdoctoral lecture qualification in 1903.[2] From 1908 to 1920 Landsteiner was prosector at the Wilhelminenspital in Vienna and in 1911 he was sworn in as an associate professor of pathological anatomy. During that time he discovered – in co-operation with Erwin Popper – the infectious character of Poliomyelitis and isolated the polio virus.[3] In recognition of this groundbreaking discovery, which proved to be the basis for the fight against polio, he was posthumously inducted into the Polio Hall of Fame at Warm Springs, Georgia which was dedicated in January 1958.

Enlarge picture
Landsteiner bronze bust at Warm Springs

Discovery of the blood groups

Enlarge picture
Karl Landsteiner working in his lab in Vienna, (reverse of 1,000-schilling bank note, 1997)

In 1900 karl Landsteiner found out that the blood of two people under contact agglutinates, and in 1901 he found that this effect was due to contact of blood with blood serum. As a result he succeeded in identifying the three blood groups A, B and O, which he labelled C, of human blood. Landsteiner also found out that blood transfusion between persons with the same blood group did not lead to the destruction of blood cells, whereas this occurred between persons of different blood groups.[4] Based on his findings, in 1907 the first successful blood transfusion was performed by Reuben Ottenberg at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Today it is well known that persons with blood group AB can accept donations of the other blood groups, and that persons with blood group O can donate to all other groups. Individuals with blood group AB are referred to as universal recipients and those with blood group O are known as universal donors. These donor-recipient relationships arise due to the fact that persons with AB do not form antibodies against either blood group A or B. Further, the immune systems of persons with blood group O, because their blood possesses neither characteristic A nor B, do not refuse the donation. In today's blood transfusions only concentrates of red blood cells without serum are transmitted, which is of great importance in surgical practice. In 1930 Landsteiner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of these achievements.

Research work in Holland and the United States

After World War I, Vienna and the new republic of Austria as a whole was in a desolate economic state, a situation in which Landsteiner did not see any possibilities to carry on with his research work. He decided to move to Holland and accepted a post as prosector in the small Catholic Ziekenhuis hospital in The Hague and, in order to improve his financial situation also took a job in a small factory, producing old tuberculin (tuberculinum prestinum).[5] He also published a number of papers, five of them being published in Dutch by the Royal Academy of Sciences. Yet working conditions proved to be not much better than in post-war Vienna. So Landsteiner accepted the inivitation that reached him from New York, initiated by Simon Flexner, who was familiar with Landsteiner's work, to work for the Rockefeller Institute. With his family he arrived there in the spring of 1923.. Throughout the 1920s Landsteiner worked on the problems of immunity and allergy. In 1927 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 and, in 1927, the types began to be used in paternity suits.

In the field of bacteriology Landsteiner and Clara Nigg succeeded in 1930-1932 in culturing Rickettsia prowazekii, the causative agent of typhus, on living media.

Private life

Landsteiner was serving at a war hospital in 1916 when, at the age of 48, he married Leopoldine Helene Wlasto. Their only child, a son, was born the following year and was christened Ernst Karl on April 8, 1917. He was to become a surgeon in Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1929 Landsteiner became a United States citizen. Karl Landsteiner died of a heart attack while still working at his laboratory at the age of 75. He is buried in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he and his family had spent many summers.

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