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Willem Kolff
Willem Kolff
Profile of Willem Kolff Biography of Willem Kolff Interview with Willem Kolff Willem Kolff Photo Gallery

Willem Kolff Biography

Pioneer of Artificial Organs

Willem Kolff Date of birth: February 14, 1911
Date of death: February 11, 2009

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  Willem Kolff

Willem Kolff was born in Leiden in the Netherlands. Kolff's father was a physician and young Willem decided at an early age to follow in his footsteps. He began his medical studies at the University of Leiden (one of the oldest in Europe) in 1930. From 1934 to 1936, he worked as an assistant in the pathological anatomy department of the University.

Willem Kolff Biography Photo
After receiving his MD in 1938, Kolff began postgraduate studies at the University of Groningen, and served as an assistant in the University's medical department. It was here that Kolff first became interested in the possibility of artificially simulating the function of the kidney, to remove toxins from the blood of patients with uremia, or kidney failure. He found a sympathetic mentor in Professor Polak Daniels, chief of the medical department at Groningen.

When Germany attacked the Netherlands in 1940, Kolff founded the first blood bank on the continent of Europe. When the Dutch defenses collapsed, Professor Daniels and his wife committed suicide. Unwilling to serve under the Nazi appointed by the Germans to replace his mentor, Kolff moved to the small town of Kampen, to work in the town's municipal hospital. It was here, in 1943, that Kolff developed the first, crude artificial kidney.

Working with wooden drums, cellophane tubing, and laundry tubs, Kolff constructed an apparatus that drew the patient's blood, cleansed it of impurities, and pumped it back into the patient. The first 15 patients lived no more than a few days on Kolff's machines. Kolff was not discouraged however, because he was able to give a few more days of consciousness to comatose men and women on the point of death. Having crossed this barrier, he knew he would eventually be able to prolong a patient's life even longer.

Willem Kolff Biography Photo
Kolff got his chance in 1945 when a woman in Kampen, a hated Nazi collaborator, was brought to him for treatment. Many people in the town urged him to let the woman die, but Kolff did not consider it his place as a doctor to determine who should live or die. His hemodialysis treatment saved the woman's life, and he continued his development of dialysis machines.

In the years immediately following the war, he shipped free dialysis machines to researchers in England, Canada and the United States, completed his post-graduate work at Groningen -- receiving his Ph.D. in internal medicine -- continued his duties in Kampen, and lectured at the University of Leiden.

In 1950, he was invited to join the research staff of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and emigrated to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1956. At the Cleveland Clinic, Kolff turned to the study of cardiovascular problems and built one of the first heart-lung apparatuses. This device made open-heart surgery possible for the first time.

In 1955, he attended the first convention of the American Society for Artificial Organs. He now turned his attention to the development of an implantable artificial heart. In 1957, he implanted an artificial heart into a dog, which survived for 90 minutes. Kolff believed he was on the right track, although serious medical journals and societies would not accept articles on the subject of implantable artificial organs. By 1961 he had designed an intra-aortic balloon pump for cases of acute myocardial distress. Within a few years, this device was in widespread use.

In 1967, Kolff moved to the University of Utah as Professor of Surgery in the medical school, as research professor in the engineering school and as director of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering. Over the opposition of many physicians, Dr. Kolff wanted to give the patient more control of the process, so patients could perform their dialysis at home, without a doctor's supervision. In 1975, he introduced the Wearable Artificial Kidney, an eight-pound chest pack with an 18-pound auxiliary tank.

Willem Kolff Biography Photo
At the same time, Dr. Kolff continued his work on the artificial heart. With one of his students, Dr. Robert Jarvik, and a veterinary surgeon, Dr. Don Olsen, Kolff's developed a series of progressively more efficient mechanical hearts. One of these, the Jarvik-5 mechanical heart, was implanted in a calf, which survived for 268 days with the device. In 1981, Kolff applied to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to attempt implantation in a human subject.

On December 2, 1982, a team of surgeons at the University, led by Dr. William DeVries, implanted the Jarvik-7 artificial heart into Barney Clark, a 61 year-old retired dentist. Clark required three subsequent operations to adjust the device and replace a defective valve but, when he died, almost four months later, it was due to the failure of his other organs. The Jarvik-7 was still functioning acceptably when Dr. Clark died. The publicity surrounding the operation and Dr. Clark's subsequent progress made him a celebrity and focused international interest on Dr. Kolff's research.

Although the increased success rate of human heart transplants has reduced interest in artificial hearts for the time being, Dr. Kolff's accomplishment remains unparalleled. Over his long career, he published more than 600 papers and articles, and numerous books, including Artificial Organs. He was inducted into the Inventors' Hall of Fame in 1985, and in 1990 was named by Life magazine in its list of the 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.

Willem Kolff retired in 1997, after 30 years at the University of Utah. In September 2002, Dr. Kolff received the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, the highest honor in American medicine. The award committee cited Dr. Kolff for "the development of renal hemodialysis, which changed kidney failure from a fatal to a treatable disease, prolonging the useful lives of millions of patients." He died at his home in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, a few days before his 98th birthday.

This page last revised on Dec 04, 2013 16:55 EDT
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