A Career of Medical Breakthroughs

Karl Landsteiner was born in 1868 to a prosperous family in Austria.  He obtained a medical degree prior to his 23 birthday.  With his medical degree, Karl decided to pursue a research career rather than one practicing medicine.  He had a special interest in immunology and blood serum.

His work was focused on why blood from different people led to the “clumping” of red blood cells.  The current wisdom was that the clumping was due to a disease.  Karl disproved this.  Karl believed that there were three blood groups, now known as A, B, and O.  Later a fourth type, AB, was identified.  Later in his career, he would discover positive and negative classifications as well.

At the time, blood transfusions were rarely done because they could result in death.  Karl identified that transfusions of the same blood type did not lead to problems.  His discovery subsequently led to life-saving transfusions.  In America, there are 4 million blood transfusions each year.

The discovery of blood types would be an ultimate legacy for medical professionals.  But Karl had other major discoveries yet to come.  He and a colleague identified the bacterium that caused syphilis.  This discovery was followed by discovering the virus that caused polio.

If the prior work wasn’t an outstanding career, Karl’s had another important contribution.  He identified very small molecules which he called haptens.  These haptens, when attached to proteins in the body, produce an immune response.  Much of the immune system research today involves these haptens.

While Karl did with the Nobel Prize in medicine, he remains a hidden hero in that very few people, outside of the medical field, know of his work.  Hidden heroes rarely stop after they achieve initial success.  Karl was only 32 when he discovered blood types.  He continued his amazing medical discoveries throughout the rest of his life until he died at the age of 75.

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“The ability to make big leaps of thought is a common denominator among the originators of breakthrough ideas.”  Nicholas Negroponte (Architect)

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