Willem Johan Kolff Biography (1911-)

physician, biomedical engineer

Willem Johan Kolff was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, on February 14, 1911,the son of Adriana (de Jonge) and Jacob Kolff, a doctor who ran a tuberculosis sanatorium. After graduating from medical school at the Universityof Leiden in 1938, Kolff accepted a teaching post at the University of Groningen. There he was influenced by a professor who introduced Kolff to the basicconcepts of dialysis--the principle whereby a solution of a high concentration passes through a semipermeable membrane to a solution with a lower concentration. He was affected as well by patients who were dying of kidney failure.

The kidneys are vital organs in the body; among other duties, the pair of organs is responsible for eliminating liquid wastes from the body, filtering over 400 gallons of blood daily. When the kidneys are not functioning correctly,uremia--a pathological condition caused by the accumulation of waste products normally removed in the urine--develops. The body swells, and if there is no intervention, death results. By the early twentieth century, doctors knew that they needed to create an external "kidney" to replace the function of damaged kidneys. As early as 1913 in the United States, doctors had managed a crude blood dialysis, or blood filtering, of dogs using celloidin as the filtering membrane. A major problem that they could not overcome, however, was preventing the coagulation of the blood once it was outside the animal. During and just after World War I, a German doctor, Georg Haas, using a new anticoagulant, heparin, successfully managed the first human dialysis, but still therewere problems: Haas's apparatus could not filter enough blood quickly, and the supply of the anticoagulant was minimal.

At Groningen, Kolff was able to capitalize on these ground-breaking achievements and completed his own dialysis research with a simple sausage packing made of cellophane. He discovered that when the sausage casing was filled with aliquid, such as blood, then agitated in saline solution, the casing made a perfect membrane for filtering wastes. With the German takeover of Holland in1940, Kolff, an outspoken anti-Nazi, left Groningen for the country town of Kampen, where he became the internist at the local hospital. There, in addition to carrying out his hospital duties and helping the resistance whenever possible, Kolff continued work on his dialysis machine. The anticoagulant heparin had become commercially available by that time. To solve the problem of adequate blood supply he created large rotating drums, adopting an idea automotive magnate Henry Ford had used to design water pumps in his engines. Kolff'sattempts with humans initially were unsuccessful, and it was not until just after the end of the war, in September of 1945, that he successfully treated apatient, saving her life.

While still a medical student in 1937, Kolff had married Janke C. Huidekoper,and they already had four children, with another on the way, by 1950, when Kolff accepted a position in the United States at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic. Meanwhile, Kolff's dialysis machine was being improved upon by others around theworld. Kolff then moved on to other medical endeavors: he was intent on creating a heart-lung machine that could be used to keep bodily functions operating and thus enable open-heart surgery to take place. In the 17 years he spent at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation as professor of clinical investigation, Kolff, working with C. P. Dubbelman, designed an artificial heart-lungdevice known as a pump-oxygenator. By 1961 another of Kolff's designs was inservice: the intra-aortic balloon pump to be used in cases of circulation failure. In addition, his attention increasingly turned to designing and implanting an artificial heart. In December of 1957, Kolff and his Clevelandteam removed the heart from a dog and replaced it with a pneumatic pump whichkept the dog alive for 90 minutes, proving the viability of the artificial heart.

In 1967 Kolff moved from Cleveland to accept a position at the University ofUtah as the head of both the Division of Artificial Organs and the Instituteof Biomedical Engineering. As such, he led a team of surgeons, physicists, and cardiologists in designing an implantable artificial heart for humans. It was this team, using a heart designed by one of Kolff's students, Robert K. Jarvik, that implanted the first artificial heart in a human on December 2, 1982. The patient, Barney Clark, lived for 112 days, proving the viability of such a procedure. Kolff also designed an artificial ear and eye,though the latter, with its numerous devices necessary for operation, is farfrom a practical stage. Kolff has gone on to develop a portable kidney dialysis machine, introducing, as early as 1975, the Wearable Artificial Kidney (orWAK), which allows for home dialysis.

Kolff became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1956 and is the author of close to700 articles and papers on the kidney, heart, and artificial organs. Recognized worldwide for his efforts in bionics, Kolff is the recipient of more than100 awards and honors, including the Landsteiner Silver Medal in 1942 from the Red Cross of the Netherlands, the Frances Amory Award in 1948 from the American Academy of Arts and Science, the Gairdner Prize in 1966, the Leo HarveyPrize in 1972, and the Japan Prize in 1986. He was named one of the one hundred most important Americans of the twentieth century by Life magazinein 1990.

Recent Updates

October 2003: Kolff received the 2003 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, presented by the National Academy of Engineering, "for his pioneering work on artificial organs, beginning with the kidney, thus launching a new fieldthat is benefiting the lives of millions." Source: National Academy of Engineering, www.nae.edu/awards, March 19, 2004.

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