Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Willem Kolff, creator of the first kidney dialysis machine,
was born on February 14, 1911 in Leyden, Holland. He became
interested in medicine as a child, spending much time learning
from his father, Jacob Kolff, who was director of the Tuberculosis
Sanatorium at Beekbergen. Kolff graduated from the Leyden
Medical School in 1938 and in 1941 he received a Ph.D. summa
cum laude from the University of Groeningen.
As a medical student, Kolff had witnessed a 22-year-old
man's death due to kidney failure. He immediately devoted
himself to research, and in 1941, though his community was
occupied by the Germans, he managed to develop an artificial
kidney machine in Kampen. He had obtained coarse materials
from a local factory, fashioning a machine out of cellophane
tubing wrapped around a cylinder, which would rest in a bath
of cleansing fluid. The patient's blood, toxic because of
kidney failure, would be drawn into the tubing, into the bath,
and cleaned, then passed back into the patient's body. In
1945 the device saved the life of its first patient, a 67-year-old
woman. She lived seven more years.
In 1950, Kolff emigrated to the United States, taking a
position at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation as head of the
department of artificial organs and professor of clinical
investigation. At the Cleveland Clinic Kolff began working
on an artificial heart. In 1957 an artificial heart was implanted
into an animal for the first time.
In 1967, Kolff left Cleveland to take a position at the
University of Utah as director of the Institute for Biomedical
Engineering and its artificial organs division. He continued
his work on the artificial heart there and in 1982 he supervised
the first full implant of an artificial heart in a human patient
— that patient was Barney Clark. At the University of
Utah, Kolff lead or contributed to efforts related to many
other types of artificial organs as well, including artificial
ears, electronic artificial eyes, and a membrane oxygenator.
His most renowned creation incorporating the original idea
of hemodialysis, currently keeps more than one million patients
worldwide alive. Today hemodialysis is available in nearly
every country in the world.
Kolff has been honored with many awards including the Amory
Prize, the Valentine Award, the Cameron Prize for Practical
Therapeutics by the University of Edinburgh, the Lasker Clinical
Award, and induction into the National Inventors' Hall of
Fame. He has published many medical articles, in more than
300 scientific journals. As of this writing (Feb. 2003) he
is officially retired, but still works on medical projects.
His latest is a portable artificial lung.