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Willem Kolff (1911-2009)

Dutch doctor Willem Kolff is considered the father of artificial organs. He pioneered the kidney dialysis machine and the artificial heart.

Kolff was a medical student at Groningen University. He was inspired to develop an artificial kidney machine having met young patients dying of kidney failure. Kolff built his first dialysis machine during the Second World War, under Nazi occupation. Materials were in short supply, but Kolff created a machine out of cellophane sausage skin, a car pump and a revolving drum. The first 15 patients died before he successfully treated a woman who had acute kidney failure in 1945.

In 1950, Kolff emigrated to the United States, where the development of artificial organs still dominated his career. He joined the Cleveland Clinic, improved the artificial kidney machine and developed a heart-lung machine for cardiac surgery. In 1967, Kolff moved to the University of Utah, where he developed the artificial heart. The first was implanted in a patient in 1982. Kolff also researched bionic eyes, ears and arms.

Kolff died in 2009 aged 97. His artificial organ machines keep over 1 million people alive worldwide.

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Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


S Blakeslee, ‘Willem Kolff, inventor of kidney and heart machines, dies at 97’, New York Times (12 February 2009)

W Kolff and B Scribner, ‘The development of Renal Hemodialysis’, Nature, 8 (2002), pp 1063-1065

P Heiney, The Nuts and Bolts of Life: Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Kidney Machine (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003)

H Broers, Inventor for Life: The Story of W. J. Kolff, Father of Artificial Organs (Kampen: B&V Media, 2007)


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