Willem Kolff deserves to be called, and by many people is recognized, as the father of the development of artificial organs and in particular the inventor or developer of the artificial kidney. In addition Kolff has been instrumental in the development and use of many other artificial organs now in use.
Willem Kolff was born in the Netherlands on February 14, 1911. His father, Jacob Kolff, was a medical doctor and the director of a tuberculosis sanatorium in the town of Beekbergen, the Netherlands. Following in his father's footsteps Willem decided on a medical career. He studied medicine at the University of Leiden and graduated with his medical degree in 1938. Following his graduation he did postgraduate work at the University of Groningen, from which he received the Ph.D. cum laude, in medicine in 1946. Between his graduation from the University of Leiden with the medical degree and the awarding of his Ph.D. from the University of Groningen was the Second World War. He apparently managed to stay clear of much of the disruption caused by the war by practicing medicine in the town of Kampen in the province of Overyssel in the Eastern part of the Netherlands.
In 1940 Kolff was instrumental in establishing the first blood bank in the town of Kampen where he then practiced medicine. It was to be the first blood bank in Europe. During his time in Kampen, Kolff became motivated to develop the artificial kidney because of a 22 year old man who was dying from renal failure. He began his research on the problem and in 1943 managed to develop the first artificial kidney in the world. He was able to test it out on several terminal patients, and in 1945 he was able to save the first patient with renal failure from death through hemo-dialysis. So before he had even received his doctorate, Kolff had already become a first rate inventor and developer of a life-saving medical device.
Conditions for research were not promising in the Netherlands during the immediate post World War II period. The country was attempting to recover from the ravages of the Second World War, and medical research was not one of the top priorities in terms of government funding. So in 1950 he moved to the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, where he became the Department Head of Artificial Organs, and also a Professor of Clinical Investigations. At the Cleveland Clinic he was able to continue his research on the artificial kidney and also started work on other artificial organs such as for the heart and for the lungs. In 1957, his research on the development of an artificial heart had progressed to the point where they were able to implant an artificial heart in an animal.
Dr. Kolff moved to the University of Utah in 1967 where he became Director of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Kolff worked on a variety of artificial organs during his tenure at the University of Utah, including artificial eyes, hearing and others. It was in Utah where the first artificial heart for human use was developed using Dr. Kolff's principles. The developer was Dr. Jarvik, and the first artificial heart recipient was the Seattle dentist Barney Clark. In 1982 the first heart transplant surgery was performed by another Dutch American, Dr. William C. DeVries. The heart received by Mr. Clark was named the Jarvik-7 artificial heart device.
Dr. Kolff retired in 1986 at the age of 75. Following his retirement he continued his work on artificial organ development. One of the principal devices he worked on was the wearable artificial lung, a device that showed great promise.
During his long career in medicine and medical research, Dr. Kolff received many awards and honors. Through 2006 he had received 13 honorary doctorates, the last one being conferred by the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. Also in 2002 he received the prestigious Lasker Award. In addition over his life time he received over 120 international awards.
Dr. Kolff married Janke Huidekoper in 1938. There is no information available on whether the couple had children. Dr. Kolff passed away in 2009 close to his 98th birthday. He had lived a long and productive life.
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