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Kanner was born in Klekotow, Austria. He studied at the University of Berlin from 1913, his studies broken by service with the Austrian Army in World War I, finally receiving his MD in 1921. He emigrated to the United States in 1924 to take a position as an Assistant Physician at the State Hospital in [Yankton County, South Dakota. In 1930 he was selected to develop the first child psychiatry service in a pediatric hospital at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. He became Associate Professor of Psychiatry in 1933.
He was the first physician in the United States to be identified as a child psychiatrist and his first textbook, Child Psychiatry in 1935, was the first English language textbook to focus on the psychiatric problems of children. His seminal 1943 paper Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact (pdf), together with the work of Hans Asperger, forms the basis of the modern study of autism.
Leo Kanner was the Editor for Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, then called Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, from 1971 till 1974.
Kanner remained active until his death at the age of 86, two months short of his 87th birthday.
- Kanner, L. (1943), Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact (pdf), Nervous Child, 2, pp.217-250.
- Kanner, L. (1946), Irrelevant and Metaphorical Language in Early Infantile Autism, American Journal of Psychiatry, 103, pp.242-246.
- Kanner, L. & Eisenberg, L. (1956), Early Infantile Autism 1943-1955, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 26, pp.55-65.
- Bender, L. (1982), In Memoriam Leo Kanner, MD June 13, 1894--April 4, 1981, J Am Acad Child Psychiatry 21(1): 88-89.