Remembering a Medical Pioneer

Dr. Willem J. Kolff, who saved millions of lives as the inventor of the world’s first artificial kidney, died at the age of 97 on February 11th in Newton Square, PA.

Dr.KolffIn 1938, the Dutch physician was still a young man when he witnessed one of his first patients die a slow and agonizing death from kidney disease. The tragedy inspired him to seek a cure for failing organs, starting with a device that would extract toxins from the blood in individuals whose kidneys have failed them.

In 1940, the Nazi regime invaded the Netherlands and Dr. Kolff saved the lives of more than 800 people from labor camps by hiding them in his country hospital. But his determination did not stop there: he also continued work on his artificial kidney. The machine was a rudimentary setup of sausage casing and a wooden drum, and later reinventions included the use of orange juice cans and a clothing washing machine.

The device underwent constant refining until finally, in 1945, he successfully created an artificial kidney appropriate for clinical use. The apparatus eventually evolved into the hemodialysis machine, which is now used by hundreds of thousands of Americans several times a week. It is still the only machine that replaces kidney function after end-stage renal disease (ESRD), commonly known as kidney failure.

“Dr. Kolff was a visionary scientist whose invention of the hemodialysis machine has literally saved millions of lives,” says John Davis, CEO of the National Kidney Foundation. “Because of his accomplishments, kidney patients do not just simply survive with ESRD, but live normal, full lives. His dedication was inspiring.”

For the remainder of his life, Dr. Kolff continued research in developing artificial organs. He also invented the world’s first artificial heart in 1957 and the membrane oxygenator, which is still used in open heart surgery today. In 2002, Dr. Kolff received the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award. The Lasker Awards are the nation’s most distinguished honor for outstanding contributions to basic and clinical medical research.

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