Blood Type, in medicine, classification of red blood cells by the presence of specific substances on their surface. Typing of red blood cells is a prerequisite for blood transfusion. In the early part of the 20th century, physicians discovered that blood transfusions often failed because the blood type of the recipient was not compatible with that of the donor. In 1901 the Austrian pathologist Karl Landsteiner classified blood types and discovered that they were transmitted by Mendelian heredity.
The four blood types are known as A, B, AB, and O. Blood type A contains red blood cells that have a substance A on their surface. This type of blood also contains an antibody directed against substance B, found on the red cells of persons with blood type B. Type B blood contains the reverse combination. Serum of blood type AB contains neither antibody, but red cells in this type of blood contain both A and B substances. In type O blood, neither substance is present on the red cells, but the individual is capable of forming antibodies directed against red cells containing substance A or B. If blood type A is transfused into a person with B type blood, anti-A antibodies in the recipient will destroy the transfused A red cells. Because O type blood has neither substance on its red cells, it can be given successfully to almost any person. Persons with blood type AB have no antibodies and can receive any of the four types of blood; thus blood types O and AB are called universal donors and universal recipients, respectively.
Other hereditary blood-group systems have subsequently been discovered. The hereditary blood constituent called Rh factor is of great importance in obstetrics and blood transfusions because it creates reactions that can threaten the life of newborn infants. More than twenty additional blood types have been discovered. Their primary importance is in legal cases involving proof of paternity. See also Genetics.