Friday, February 13, 2009

Health Blog Obit: Willem Kolff, Inventor of Dialysis Machine

kolffWillem Kolff, inventor of the modern kidney dialysis machine and the man behind the artificial heart and other mechanical organs, died on Wednesday. He was 97.

The Dutch-born physician showed a unique resourcefulness in developing the first artificial kidney. After witnessing a 22-year-old man die from kidney failure, he set about trying to figure out how a machine could help cleanse the blood. Working during World War II, he salvaged a cooling system from an old Ford car and metal pieces from a downed German fighter plane, as the U.K. Telegraph describes in its obit.

Here’s how the New York Times describes what he built:

It consisted of 50 yards of sausage casing wrapped around a wooden drum set into a salt solution. The patient’s blood was drawn from a wrist artery and fed into the casings. The drum was rotated, removing impurities. To get the blood safely back into the patient, Dr. Kolff copied the design of a water-pump coupling used in Ford motor engines. Later he used orange juice cans and a clothes washing machine to build his apparatuses.

Kolff continued to improve the machine, and he also went on to make major contributions to creation of the heart-lung machine and the artificial heart.

Don E. Olsen, a researcher who succeeded him at the University of Utah, told the Washington Post that Kolff always referred to different versions of the mechanical heart by the name of the person under him who was doing most of the work at the time. “We had the Donovan heart, the Green heart, the Kwan Gett heart, the Jarvik heart,” he said. “But they all should have been called Kolff’s heart.”

Kolff also exemplified the doctor’s role as healer: The first person to survive using his kidney machine was a woman who was a hated Nazi collaborator. WaPo quotes what he told the author of the book “The Miracle Finders”: “People begged, ‘Let her die,’” he said. “But no physicain has the right to decide whether a patient is a good guy or not. He must treat every patient who has need of him.”

Photo courtesy of Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

2 comments:

Zach said...

As one who is approaching 27 years on In-center Hemodialysis, I owe Willem J. Kolff a debt of gratitude.

RIP

Dr. Simon E. Prince, FACP, FASN said...

Ageed. Hemodialysis is not perfect. But, the world is better off with its invention.