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Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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Willem Kolff: The Father of Artificial Organs

Posted June 28, 2012 12:00 AM by SavvyExacta

Medical student Willem Kolff devoted himself to researching kidney failure after witnessing the death of a 22-year-old man. Throughout his career he developed the kidney dialysis machine to clean toxins from blood and it first saved a life in 1945. Kolff was also the inventor of the artificial heart, although it is named for his collaborator, Dr. Jarvik..

Early Life and World War II

Kolff was born on February 14, 1911 in the Netherlands. (Is it a coincidence that the man who invented a heart was born on Valentine's Day?) He studied medicine and researched renal function at the University of Groningen.

During World War II Kolff refused to cooperate with the Nazis and moved to a small hospital in the Netherlands city of Kampen. He hid more than 800 people in the hospital, saving them from Nazi labor camps. In 1940 he organized the first blood bank in Europe.

Artificial Kidney

As the war continued, so did Kolff's work on the artificial kidney. Resources were limited during wartime and Kolff used sausage casings and orange juice cans to create an artificial kidney to clean blood. He discovered that sausage casings filled with blood and placed in a bath of salt water could "clean" the blood; urea could pass through the semipermeable membranes while larger blood molecules stayed inside.

The design advanced; 50 yards of sausage casing wrapped around a wooden drum inside salt solution. A patient's blood was drawn from an artery and fed into the casings, the drum rotated, and the impurities were removed. The blood was pumped back into the patient using a water-pump coupling copied from Ford motor engines.

Although the first 15 patients to try the machine died, in 1945 a 67-year-old woman in renal failure was aided by the machine and lived seven more years. Soon after, Kolff sent a sample of his dialysis machine to Mount Sainai Hospital in the U.S. In America, with more resources, the machine could be developed to help larger numbers of people. Kolff moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1950 and spent six years retaking his medical exams and undergoing naturalization to become an American citizen.

First Artificial Heart and Other Organs

After moving to the U.S., Kolff worked at the Cleveland Clinic and helped develop a heart-lung machine that could maintain function during surgery. He also worked at Brigham and Women's Hospital to develop the first production artificial kidney.

Kolff's first model of the artificial heart, developed in 1957, kept a dog alive for 90 minutes. He implanted the first artificial heart in a human in 1982. The patient lived for 112 days.

Kolff's other artificial organ research included eyes, ears, and limbs. He founded the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs. He died three days before turning 98 on February 11, 2009.

Read an interview with Dr. Kolff by the American Academy of Achievement.

Resources:

Engology - William Kolff

Invent.org Hall of Fame - Inventor Profile: Willen J. Kolff

New Netherlands Project - Kolff, Willem Johan (1911-2009)

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

Wikipedia - Willem Johan Kolff

http://medgadget.com/2009/02/farewell_to_a_true_medical_revolutionary.html [photo]

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