Willem Johan Kolff was born on February 14, 1911 in Leyden, Holland. Kolff was the son of Jacob Kolff who was the director of Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Beekbergen where Willem spent a great deal of his childhood. Following in his father's footsteps Kolff decided on a medical career and he studied medicine at the University of Leiden, graduating with a medical degree in 1938. He earned a Ph.D. in Medicine from the University of Groningen in 1946.
During World War II Kolff practiced medicine in Kampen, Ovreyssel in the eastern part of the Netherlands. During the war he was active in the resistance and was able to save more than 800 from Nazi labor camps by hiding them in his hospital. In 1940 he set up first blood bank in Europe in the hospital. After watching a patient of his die of temporary kidney failure he was inspired to experiment with using sausage casing to remove impurities from blood. The sausage casing functions as a semi-permeable membrane, permeable to small molecules like urea, but impermeable to larger proteins and blood cells. The first artificial kidney he tried out on patients consisted of fifty feet of sausage casing wrapped around a wooden drum set into salt solution. During dialysis the drum was rotated to remove impurities. To get blood back into the patient Kolff used a part from Ford engine water pump.
The first fifteen patients that the machine was used on died. Later Kolff used anti-coagulants in conjunction with the machine and in 1945 a woman who had gone into a coma from kidney failure was saved by the machine. In 1947 Kolff sent his machine to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and he began talking with American physicians about artificial organs. Eventually the machine underwent improvements that allowed it to be used on terminal kidney failure patients awaiting transplants, not just patients with temporary kidney failure.
Kolff emigrated to the United States in 1950 becoming the head of the Department of Artificial Organs at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Faced with rebuilding after the war the government of the Netherlands was not able to devote much funding to medical research and Kolff found the environment for medical research in America better. At the Cleveland Clinic Kolff continued his work on artificial organs including artificial heart and lungs. In 1957 Kolff implanted an artificial heart into an animal.
In 1967 Kolff moved to the University of Utah where he became the director of the Institute of Biomechanical Engineering. In Utah he continued his work on artificial organs including artificial eyes and ears. In 1986 Dr. Richard Jarvik implanted an artificial heart into a human patient. The artificial heart used, the Jarvik-7, was based on principals developed by Kolff.
Kolff, in addition to being hailed as the father of artificial organs, received numerous awards including 13 honorary doctorates and the Lasker Award in 2002. He was the first person living in the United States to be made Commander of the Order of Oranje-Nassau by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Kolff retired in 1986 on his 75th birthday, but continued, part time his work on artificial organs including the wearable artificial lung.
Kolff died on February 11, 2009.
Davies, Sven T.; "Willem J. Kolff"; at Utah History (media.utah.edu)
Blakeslee, Sandrah; "Willem J. Kolff, at 97; Dutch inventor of artificial heart and organs"; New York Times, Feb. 16, 2009; found at boston.com
"Kolff, Willem Johan [1911-2009]" at New Netherlands Project (nnp.org)
Willem Johan Kolff Wikipedia Entry