Karl Landsteiner - Biography, Discoveries and Honours

Karl Landsteiner

Karl Landsteiner, paradigm of insatiably curiosity in blood identity.

From the very first moment humans appeared on the planet, we have attempted to understand and explain the world around us.

Asclepius, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, Galen of Pergamum, Avicenna, Gregor Mendel, Sigmund Freud and host of others has indebtedly shaped humankind’s knowledge and laid the foundation for virtually every scientific discipline.

So also Karl Landsteiner.

Known for development of blood group system, discovery of Rh factor, discovery of poliovirus

Who is Karl Landsteiner?

Karl Landsteiner is an Austrian biologist and physician born in Vienna on June 14, 1868. Karl Landsteiner was awarded a medical degree by the University of Vienna in 1891. He was recognised for core blood typing in discovering blood groups and erection of immunochemistry science. Karl Landsteiner lived for seventy-five years (75 years) before he passed away in June 26, 1943.

Early life

Karl Landsteiner was born in Vienna on June 14, 1868 to the family of Leopold Landsteiner and Fanny Hess.

His father, Leopold Landsteiner, a doctor of law, was a profiled journalist and publisher, who died when Karl was six years old. Karl was brought up by his mother, Fanny Hess, to whom he was so devoted that a death mask of her hung on his wall until he died.

On leaving school, furthering to varsity Landsteiner studied medicine and in 1891, he was awarded a medical degree by the University of Vienna. Hence, for the following 5 years he studied physiological chemistry in laboratories in Germany and Switzerland.

During this period, laboratories of Hantzsch at Zurich, Emil Fischer at Wurzburg, and E. Bamberger at Munich are where he performs research.

In 1898 he moved to the Pathological Anatomical Institute in Vienna, where he carried on work that led to the discovery of blood groups.

Before then, Landsteiner resumed his medical studies at the Vienna General Hospital. In 1896 he became an assistant under Max von Gruber in the Hygiene Institute at Vienna. Even at this time he was interested in the mechanisms of immunity and in the nature of antibodies.

Karl Landsteiner Biography

Career and Exploits

From 1898 till 1908 he held the post of assistant in the University Department of Pathological Anatomy in Vienna, the Head of which was Professor A. Weichselbaum, who had discovered the bacterial cause of meningitis, and with Fraenckel had discovered the pneumococcus.

Up to the year 1919, after twenty years of work on pathological anatomy, Landsteiner with a number of collaborators had published many papers on his findings in morbid anatomy and on immunology.

Landsteiner discovered new facts about the immunology of syphilis, added to the knowledge of the Wassermann reaction, and discovered the immunological factors which he named haptens (it then became clear that the active substances in the extracts of normal organs used in this reaction were, in fact, haptens).

He made fundamental contributions to our knowledge of paroxysmal haemoglobinuria.

Landsteiner went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where monkeys were available for him to affirm his study and carry out further experiments on the cause of poliomyelitis which can be transmitted to monkeys as a result of less availability of monkey.

His work there, together with that independently done by Flexner and Lewis, laid the foundations of our knowledge of the cause and immunology of poliomyelitis.

Landsteiner made numerous contributions to both pathological anatomy, histology and immunology, all of which showed, not only his meticulous care in observation and description, but also his biological understanding.

In the 1800s, doctors knew that transfusing blood between individuals could cause red blood cells to clump — a phenomenon called agglutination. But they didn’t know why. Landsteiner discovered that agglutination is a response of the immune system.

In 1901-1903 Landsteiner pointed out some facts and suggestions in relation to earlier attempts at blood transfusions.

Landsteiner opined that because the characteristics which determine the blood groups are inherited, the blood groups may be used to decide instances of doubtful paternity.

However, to affirm and clear further doubt, he found that different blood types have different antigens, substances that stimulate an immune response. Based on the antigens, Karl Landsteiner classified the bloods of human beings into A, B, AB, and O groups and showed that transfusions between individuals of groups A or B do not result in the destruction of new blood cells and that this catastrophe occurs only when a person is transfused with the blood of a person belonging to a different group.

Awards and Honours

Karl Landsteiner, ForMemRS distinguished the main blood groups in 1900, having developed the modern system of classification of blood groups from his identification of the presence of agglutinins in the blood, and identified, with Alexander S. Wiener, the Rhesus factor, in 1937, thus enabling physicians to transfuse blood without endangering the patient's life. With Constantin Levaditi and Erwin Popper, he discovered the polio virus in 1909.

  1. He received the Aronson Prize in 1926.
  2. In 1930, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  3. He was posthumously awarded the Lasker Award in 1946, and has been described as the father of transfusion medicine.

Later life

Landsteiner married Helen Wlasto in 1916. Dr. E. Landsteiner is a son by this marriage.

Karl Landsteiner was given the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1930 for his 1901 discovery of, and outstanding work on, the blood groups.

In 1939 Landsteiner became Emeritus Professor at the Rockefeller Institute, but continued to work as energetically as before, keeping eagerly in touch with the progress of science.

On June 24, 1943, he had a heart attack in his laboratory and died two days later in the hospital of the Institute in which he had done such distinguished work.

Karl Landsteiner Facts

Facts and Timeline

  1. Karl Landsteiner was born on June 14, 1868, in Vienna, Austria, as the only child of the famed journalist, lawyer and newspaper publisher, Leopold Landsteiner, and his wife, Fanny Hess.
  2. Leopold Landsteiner, Karl’s father passed away, when he was just six years of age.
  3. Awarded a medical degree from the ‘University of Austria’ in 1891, although he chose to become a research scientist instead of a medical practitioner, feeling the future of medicine was in research.
  4. Karl Leopold was born Jewish, but converted to Catholicism in 1890, as only catholics can be allowed to become a professor at that time.
  5. Even while he was a student he had begun to do biochemical research and in 1891 he published a paper on the influence of diet on the composition of blood ash.
  6. From 1891-1893, Landsteiner immersed himself in the study of chemistry, studying under Arthur Rudolf Hantzsch, Hermann Emil Fisher, and Eugen Bamberger in their labs in Zurich, Wurzburg and Munchen, respectively.
  7. In 1896 he became an assistant to well-known bacteriologist Max von Gruber at the ‘Hygienic Institute of Vienna’, where he concentrated his studies on the natures of immunity and antibodies.
  8. From November 1897 to 1908, he was an assistant under Anton Weischelbaum at the pathological-anatomical institute of the ‘University of Vienna’.
  9. In 1901, Karl made his groundbreaking discovery that, contrary to the previously held belief that all humans’ blood was the same, there are actually four different blood groups and three different blood types.
  10. He published his groundbreaking paper detailing the different human blood groups in 1901, which was entitled ‘On agglutination phenomena of normal human blood’.
  11. In 1911, he became an associate professor of pathological anatomy at the ‘WIlhelminenspital’ in Vienna.
  12. In 1911, he discovered and isolated the polio virus, making the development of a vaccine possible along with his partner Erwin Popper.
  13. In 1916, Karl Landsteiner married Leopoldine Helene Wlasto, who converted from her Greek Orthodox faith to her husband’s adopted religion of Roman Catholicism. Their only child, a son named Ernst Karl, was born the following year. With his family, he relocated to New York City to take a job at the ‘Rockefeller Institute’ in 1923; he was granted American citizenship five years later.
  14. In 1922, he accepted a position at the ‘Rockefeller Institute’ in America, which remained his place of employment for the remainder of his life.
  15. In 1927, he revised the blood group work he had done over 25 years before by discovering 20 new blood groups, which led to the development of modern paternity tests.
  16. During the period of 1930-1932, Landsteiner and his research partner, Clara Nigg, successfully cultured the causative agent of typhus.
  17. In 1936, he published his seminal work about the immune system entitled ‘The Specificity of the Serologic Reactions’, a book which is still considered a classic in its field.
  18. On June 24, 1943, Landsteiner had a heart attack in his laboratory at the ‘Rockefeller Institute’ in New York where he continued research even after his retirement. He passed away in the hospital two days later.
  19. It is characteristic of him that he died pipette in hand.


Even if you’ve never heard of Landsteiner, his discoveries have affected your medical records ever since you were born.

Landsteiner classified human blood into different groups and created the present-day ABO blood group system in 1901 which fortunately won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1930.

"What you bleed is what you are"...says Karl Landsteiner