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.