Willem Johan Kolff, the Inventor of Kidney Dialysis

Bust/Statue of Willem Kolff at the Engelenbergplantsoen/Hendrik van Viandenstraat in Kampen. By Norman Burkett in 1984.

Bust/Statue of Willem Kolff in Kampen.
By Norman Burkett in 1984.

Portrait of Willem Kolff

Portrait of Willem Kolff

An original dialysis device made by Kolff

An original dialysis device made by Kolff

Born in the Netherlands on 14th February, 1911, Willem J Kolff invented the first practical artificial kidney, which over many years was refined and perfected leading to the hemodialysis machines that are now in regular use world wide. His death on 11th February, 2009, just days before his 98th birthday, was widely reported around world, both in print and on the web, such is his importance world wide.

He was born in Leiden (the son of a doctor) and educated at Leiden University, graduating with an M.D. in 1938, and then went on to gain a Ph.D from the University of Groningen (Holland) in 1946. During this time he worked in several medical research teams, in the Netherlands initially and then later in America, where he moved to in 1950. He was affiliated with the Clevland Clinic Foundation from 1950 to 1967. After this he became Professor of Surgery and head of the Division of Artificial Organs at the University of Utah's medical school.

Willem suffered from dyslexia, which caused him problems with reading as a child at school (the condition was not understood at that time). But this didn't prevent him becoming an assistant in pathological anatomy at Leiden University, and while there his first invention was a device to help patients with poor circulation. It inflated and deflated a cuff around their leg at regular intervals to improve circulation.

He began his research in dialysis at Gottingen after watching a young man die from kidney failure, and later he became interested in blood transfusion as well. When German bombers attacked The Hague in 1940 while he was there, he volunteered to start the first European blood bank, recognising that with the war, this would be a vital piece of work to be involved with.

Kolff's initial work on dialysis was almost a junk-yard challenge, building his machines from salvaged car and washing machine parts, orange juice cans and sausage skins. This was mainly because World War II started at about the same time as his main research work and thus forced him to improvise to a great extent under the occupying forces. Although his machine was rather crude, he treated 16 patients with acute kidney failure, but had little success until 1945 when one of his female patients recovered from a uremic coma and went on to live another seven years. This woman was a known Nazi collaborator, but as a true doctor, he treated her as just another patient he had to save. He was also involved in helping the war-time Resistance, providing medical alibis that meant certain people were considered too ill to be worth arresting.

In an act of incredible generosity, Kolff never patented his invention, and after the end of World War II he donated five of his artificial kidneys to hospitals world wide. This enabled doctors and research scientists in other countries to learn more about dialysis and help improve the machines. Later he gave George Thorn, at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Boston, a copy of the plans for his machine, thus enabling Thorn to further refine the design. Amazingly, there was some resistance among the medical profession to using Kolff's artificial kidney - at Mt. Sinai Hospital, he and his co-workers would perform dialysis outside their normal working hours. His artificial heart research also offended some who thought it was unnatural.

While at Cleveland Clinic, his research involved improving his dialysis machine and work on heart-lung machines. While at Utah, he was involved in the development of the artificial heart, first used in 1982 (implanted into Barney Clark, a dentist), and an artificial eye, first used in 1999. The artificial heart (the Jarvik-7) was still working when Clark died due to failure of his other organs. Kolff is generally considered an important pioneer in artificial organ research.

While officially Kolff retired in 1986, like many dedicated scientists he continued to work in his laboratory at the University of Utah, for the next 11 years, on artificial organ research. In September 2002, Dr. Kolff received the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, the highest honor in American medicine. The award committee cited Dr. Kolff for "the development of renal hemodialysis, which changed kidney failure from a fatal to a treatable disease, prolonging the useful lives of millions of patients." He died at his home in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, a few days before his 98th birthday.

Video tribute to Willem Kolff, covers several areas of work of the great man, and a short speech by him.

Russ Prize 2003


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