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Kolff, Willem

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Willem Kolff

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Willem Kolff
(February 14, 1911 - February 11, 2009)
Born in Holland
Year of Discovery: 1944, 1957

Father of Artificial Organs

Kolff knew from an early age exactly what he wanted to do with his life; he wanted to be the director of a zoo. But, when his father told him there were only three zoos in existence in the Netherlands at that time, Kolff understood he would have to look elsewhere. Though his father was a physician, and the director of a tuberculosis sanatorium, Kolff resisted the idea of studying medicine. "When I was very young," Kolff recalled, "I didn't want to become a doctor because I didn't want to see people die." It seems fitting then that Kolff became the "Father of Artificial Organs," saving millions of lives through his medical inventions. Kolff is best known for inventing the artificial kidney and developing hemodialysis treatment for patients suffering from kidney failure.

The kidneys are fist-sized organs that are shaped like beans. There are two, and each is located just below the rib cage toward the middle of the back. Though fairly small, the kidneys are powerful workhorses. Each day the kidneys filter about 200 quarts of blood to remove the impurities. These impurities, around 2 quarts, are then excreted in the urine. In addition to filtering out waste materials and excess water, the kidneys also process vital chemicals, like potassium and sodium, and send back them back to the body in appropriate amounts. This complicated filtering process takes place within nephrons, tiny units that contain specialized blood vessels. Each kidney contains about one million nephrons and, when the nephrons lose their ability to filter blood, the result is what we call kidney failure. Early stages of kidney failure may produce lethargy, shortness of breath, and weakness. Swelling may occur, as the body loses its ability to eliminate excess water. As the disease progresses more serious symptoms set in. The buildup of potassium may cause fatal heart rhythms. The excess waste materials circulating in the blood begin to affect all the major organs, resulting in congestive heart failure, decreased mental awareness, and severe anemia. Eventually the unprocessed toxins overwhelm the body and the patient falls into a coma. Without immediate intervention, through hemodialysis, the patient cannot survive.

True genius finds a way. Kolff developed his first artificial kidney while Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany. Kolff moved to the small town of Kampen following the German invasion, and went to work at the municipal hospital. These were dangerous times and Kolff was right in the middle of it. He became a central figure in the local resistance, using his medical expertise to help townspeople avoid arrest by the German forces. He would simulate various diseases on resistors and Jews, and thus helped over 800 people avoid arrest. Meanwhile, he continued his research on an artificial kidney. Since he had few supplies with which to work, Kolff fashioned a device using wooden barrels, cellophane tubes, and laundry tubs. The tubing, which passed the blood back and forth between the patient and the device, wound around the drum and ran through its hollow shaft. A small motor rotated the drum, so that the blood was filtered, as it was run through a cleansing saline solution that filled the tub. But, this was no sure thing. Fifteen of his first sixteen patients died after no more than a few days; the one patient who survived did so for reasons unrelated to his kidneys. Finally, with the treatment of his seventeenth patient, Kolff found success. A 67-year-old woman, facing certain death, recovered after being treated with Kolff's artificial kidney. This forever changed the treatment of kidney failure. Following the Second World War, Kolff gave away several of his artificial kidneys to clinicians throughout the world, so the treatment of kidney failure could become available to all.  This was the humble beginning of modern day hemodialysis.

Though Robert Jarvik is closely associated with the creation of the artificial heart (the Jarvik 7), Kolff's role is often overlooked.  It was Kolff who hired Jarvik, while directing the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah, to do research on the artificial heart. And, it was Kolff who supervised the first transplant of an artificial heart into a patient in 1982 - Barney Clark, who lived for an additional 112 days before succumbing to pneumonia.



Introduction by Tim Anderson


Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Key Contributing Scientists
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

Stanford University overview of Kolff and his work:

Academy of Achievement interview with Kolff:

Doctors and discoveries, by Simmons, discusses Kolff's research:

Wikipedia entry:

Click the image to view Willem Kolff's Lasker Foundation interview

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist


Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Key Contributing Scientists to the Discovery

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist

Tracy, Kathleen. Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Dialysis Machine (Unlocking the Secrets of Science) (Ages 9-12) Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2002.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science