Office Of Public Affairs

Remembering Dr. Willem J. Kolff

Feb 13, 2009 2:00 PM

Willem J. Kolff, M.D., Ph.D., distinguished professor emeritus of surgery and internal medicine and “father” of the field of artificial organs, came to the University of Utah from the Cleveland Clinic in 1967 as professor of surgery and head of the Division of Artificial Organs. Kolff invented the artificial kidney (dialysis machine) and played a major role in development of the artificial heart.

Dr. Kolff developed the first successful artificial kidney in the Netherlands, where he received his medical and doctoral degrees, and later led the team that developed the artificial heart. His interest in the artificial kidney was spurred before World War II when as a young physician he witnessed a 22-year-old man die of kidney failure in Groningen, Netherlands. Kolff began developing the first artificial kidney in 1939 in Nazi-occupied Holland by finding parts and materials at a local factory. By 1942, he developed a prototype machine and three years later the first patient was saved by an artificial kidney.  In 1950, Kolff and his family came to the United States, settling in Ohio where he became head of the artificial organs department at the Cleveland Clinic. In 1955, he developed a “twin coil” artificial kidney built from a washing machine that for the first time gave kidney patients the possibility for dialysis. His artificial kidney turned renal failure from a fatal disease into a manageable one and saved millions of lives.

Two years after that, in 1957, Kolff implanted the first totally artificial heart in an animal.

Kolff came to the University of Utah in 1967 to head the School of Medicine’s Division of Artificial Organs. A year later, the University of Utah Board of Regents approved formation of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, headed by Dr. Kolff. The institute facilitated collaboration among researchers in chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering; computer science; chemistry; physics; and other disciplines on medical advances such as development of the artificial heart.

Kolff’s presence at the University of Utah acted as a magnet to attract scientists from all over the world who were interested in artificial organ research. Many researchers in the field today worked under Kolff in some capacity. Under his guidance, numerous models and versions of artificial hearts were developed at the University of Utah, including the Jarvik 7 model that was the world’s first implanted artificial heart. Barney Clark, a Seattle dentist, received the heart at University Hospital in December 1982 and survived 112 days.

Kolff received numerous awards for his work, including the 2002 Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, one of the most prestigious honors bestowed in U.S. medicine.

Kolff was born in Leiden, Netherlands, on Feb. 14, 1911. He received his medical degree from the Leiden Medical School in 1938 and in 1946 received a Ph.D. from the University of Groningen.

Statement by University of Utah President Michael K. Young

Salt Lake Tribune - William Kolff, former University of Utah medical pioneer, dead at 97

Deseret News - Kolff, 'father of artificial organs,' dies at 97

Los Angeles Times - Dr. willem Kolff dies at 97; Dutch phyisician built first kidney dialysis machine

New York Times - Willem Kolff, Doctor Who Invented Kidney and Heart Machines, Dies at 97

Washington Post - Doctor Invented Kidney Dialysis Machine, Artifical Organs

Visit our Spotlight Archive for a complete list of previous Spotlights.