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Willem Kolff
Willem Kolff
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Willem Kolff Interview

Pioneer of Artificial Organs

November 15, 1991
Salt Lake City, Utah

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  Willem Kolff

The American Academy of Achievement conducted interviews with Dr. Willem J. Kolff and Dr. William DeVries. In the following interview, Dr. DeVries's answers are interspersed with those of Dr. Kolff.

Dr. Kolff, you describe yourself as an inventor. When did you know this is what you were going to do?

Willem Kolff Interview Photo
Willem Kolff: When I was very young I didn't see myself as an inventor, but I always wanted to make something. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, you go to school five and a half days a week. Saturday morning you go to school, but Saturday afternoons, my father allowed me to have lessons from a carpenter. I worked with the carpenter every Saturday afternoon for seven years. I had a great variety of interests. I loved animals. I had rabbits, pigeons, pheasants. I had a sheep, guinea pigs, and so on. When I was very young I wanted to become the director of a zoo. But my father pointed out that at that time there were only three zoos in the Netherlands. So your chances of becoming a zoo director were pretty small.

My father was a doctor and, when I was very young, I didn't want to become a doctor because I didn't want to see people die. It's interesting that, later in my life, the main purpose of most of the machines I have made is to prevent people from dying. I immediately want to say, I don't want to prolong life when it is misery. I want to prolong it only when it is an enjoyable life.

When did you decide to become a doctor? Was there a teacher or someone in your life who encouraged you?

Willem Kolff: In my early years it was undoubtedly my father.

My father was director of a sanatorium for pulmonary tuberculosis, and at that time there were no antibiotics, tuberculosis was a terrible disease. And, he and I would walk in the woods around that sanatorium and he would discuss his worries about his patients. And from him, I certainly inherited this extreme concern about the well-being of patients. I've seen him very happy when he succeeded after months and months of rest and other things to have these people go home cured. I've also seen him crying and desperate after trying for a long time and a patient did not get well, and went home to die.

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We'd like to ask the same question of Dr. DeVries. What inspired you to become a physician?

William DeVries: I always really wanted to be a physician. Mainly it was the mystique of the heart. I was always enamored of the fact that the heart was supposed to be the seat of the soul, the site of love. Everything was the heart. As a child I had images of that and, and I got involved in it more and more. My mother was a nurse, and she gently encouraged me along this line. Dad was a doctor. He died shortly after my birth. I always kind of felt that I owed something to him. When I was in school, biology really excited me. I was really turned on and excited by dissecting animals. So things moved along in the direction of anatomy and biology. It was just a natural.

Why surgery as a specialty?

William DeVries: I always liked mechanical things.

I can remember sitting in school when I was in third grade, and watching the road-graders out on the street and the steam shovels, and I always kind of liked the mechanical things about life. I always enjoyed building model airplanes, taking apart clocks. I could never get them back again, but I could always take them apart. And, the mechanical things were always amazing. But, I enjoyed working with my hands. Model airplanes were a passion with me when I was growing up, so it became a natural. I mean, I was going to do something with my hands and I enjoyed the heart, so I ended up being a heart surgeon. It was just kind of the way that I went.

Any particular experience that you remember that inspired you as a kid to pursue this?

Willem Kolff Interview Photo
William DeVries: I remember just being really excited about medicine, sitting in the doctor's office and asking him questions. This was in Preston, a town of about 5,000 people in southern Idaho. The old general practitioner was so nice, he would just help me all the time. But, the most vivid memory I have of medicine was when I was in the third grade. That was about the same time that all of my friends were getting their polio shots. These were the Cutter shots -- live attenuated polio virus -- and a lot of my friends started getting polio. The virus was still alive and it was giving them polio. Polio was in epidemic proportions at that time. I remember getting a febrile illness. It turned out to be pneumonia, but they said you've got to get to the big hospital. The only way they transported sick people was in a hearse. I remember it was from Webb Brothers' Mortuary, because I remember the little metal letters on the side of the hearse. They put me in this thing and took me on a four-hour drive to Salt Lake City. I remember being in the back of this hearse and looking through these velvet windows.

I can remember my trip to that hospital and waking up about a day later and looking over on one side of me. And, there was a boy in an iron lung, and looking over on the other side and there was another boy in an iron lung about my age. And, then I remember being afraid to look down because I thought that I might be in an iron lung. And, finally kind of feeling around and realizing that I wasn't, and was very glad to see that. But, I can remember being in the hospital and seeing that -- the mechanics of this invention. It really promoted me after that incident, to do something about it. Also, it developed with me, really a pride in technology. You know, these kids were alive because of the mechanics of this sort of thing. And, that got me very excited about the mechanical aspects of medicine.

So that little two-week incident in the hospital made a big impression on me.

Dr. Kolff, were there any teachers who had a particular influence on you when you were young?

Willem Kolff Interview Photo
Willem Kolff: In my very early years, no. I had some teachers that I liked, but the people that had a real influence on my life came a little later. During my studies at the University of Leiden, I became an Assistant in Pathological Anatomy. That old professor, whose name was Tenderloo, was a very scientific man. From him I think I learned the power of reasoning, to be critical about what you think and not assume something that may not be true and that is not proven.

When you were young did you read a lot? Were you good in school?

Willem Kolff: No. I was never very good in school. I had a lot of other interests than school. In the gymnasium -- which you would call in the United States high school -- it was very difficult. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, you had to learn four modern languages. I'm fluent in four modern languages. You also had to take six years of Latin and five years of Greek. You didn't have electives, you had to take everything. Apart from the later years of German occupation, which were very terrible, these high school years were perhaps the most difficult of my life. I was forced to do things that I did not really like to do, but I knew that it was necessary. I knew I would always have one insufficient mark, so I switched it around so that my average at the end of the year was good enough for me to pass to the next class.

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