Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Jan Jansky - 140 candles today

Jan Jansky born Prague 3rd April 1873.

I think we're all interested in forgotten pioneers: those who gave the frontier a damned good shove but we just can't seem to recall, let alone celebrate, today.  There's a longish list of people who should have gotten a Nobel Prize and would have had one if they hadn't been a woman or hadn't come from a minority country or hadn't been a graduate student or a mere technician.  I'll write about Jocelyn Bell Burnell later, perhaps in July to celebrate her 70th birthday.  But as an example of what I mean, ask yourself who was the last man to set foot on the moon?  Neil Armstrong throws a long shadow, doesn't he?  So Eugene Cernan is all but totally obscured.

So the knee-jerk answer to who discovered ABO blood-groups is the late great Karl Landsteiner.  For his 1900 discovery and subsequent research on agglutination of blood and transfusions he was awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize.  "Late great" is fair enough because, in addition to ABO he also isolated the polio virus (Landsteiner & Popper 1909) and discovered Rhesus incompatibility (Wiener and Landsteiner 1937).  But get this: Landsteiner recognized only 3 classes of the primary agglutination factor, which he called A, B and C.

Jan Jansky OTOH recognised four blood groups which he called I II III IV in a 1907 paper in Czech Hematologick├í studie u psychotik┼».  This classification agrees with our current understanding which recognizes A, B, AB and O. I think we could bring this all to centre stage, not least because it's an early example of publishing negative results.  Jansky had a hypothesis that blood groups were the cause of, or associated with, certain types of psychosis (he was a neurologist and psychiatrist by trade).  But when the data revealed no such association, Jansky tooled up and shot down his cherished theory in the 1907 paper.  An American medical commission sat in 1921 to sort out the science and priority and acknowledged Jansky's claim to the earliest and correctest classification of blood groups.  He is remembered in his home place - regular blood donors in Czecho are eventually awarded a Jansky medal for their half-litres.

But before we get toooo indignant about the Nobel committee dissing the obscure but insightful genius from Prague, we should note the facts.  Nobels are only awarded to the living and only after sufficient time has elapsed to show the context and scientific impact of the cited discovery.  So if you want one you need at least a touch of longevity.  Jan Jansky developed ischaemic heart disease and pegged out at the age of 48 in 1921.  The Nobel committee wasn't ready to acknowledge the significance of his and Landsteiner's work until nearly a decade later.

Credits: I wrote about student projects and presentations in January.  To the best of my knowledge I'd never even heard of Jansky (shame on me) until one of my first year students dug him up in her researches into ABO blood groups.  So I've been hopping from one foot to the other ever since to write this celebratory birthday post.

And it might be nice to acknowledge here my old (late-great, indeed) professor of genetics George Dawson who published a massive study on the distribution of ABO blood groups in Ireland in 1964.  He recorded the blood group and county of origin of 1/18th of the population of Ireland and mapped their frequencies. I passed through the department a decade later and benefited enormously from my peripheral contact with this old-time scholar.  When I returned to the old department in 1990, the colour-coded 3x5 index cards for this project were still stacked in the warren of inter-connected rooms and cupboards down in the basement. That was something in excess of 600kg of tinder-dry paper.  I'm glad we were less sensitive about fire-safety in those days because that's where I found the acoustic coupler that made my life as a DNA database pilot much easier.

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