WILLEM J. KOLFF, 97

Doctor Invented Kidney Dialysis Machine, Artificial Organs

In 1947, the modern-day CardioWest artificial heart began as a dream of Dr. Willem Kolff's. In addition to the first mechanical heart implanted in a human being, he designed an artificial ear and eye, each implanted in a few patients.
In 1947, the modern-day CardioWest artificial heart began as a dream of Dr. Willem Kolff's. In addition to the first mechanical heart implanted in a human being, he designed an artificial ear and eye, each implanted in a few patients. (Courtesy Of The Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University Of Utah)
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By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009

Willem J. Kolff, 97, the Dutch-born doctor who saved and prolonged countless lives as the inventor of the modern kidney dialysis machine and chief designer of the first mechanical heart implanted in a human being, died Feb. 11 in Newtown Square, Pa. He had congestive heart failure.

Dr. Kolff spent much of his career in the United States and became distinguished professor emeritus of internal medicine, surgery and bioengineering at the University of Utah. Sometimes called "the father of the artificial organ," he was a mentor to Robert Jarvik and other pioneers in that field.

Dr. Kolff tried to harness mechanical engineering to a few simple principles of chemistry and physics -- and then bring the product to bear on human illness. His search for machines to treat disease encompassed the solidly successful and the quirkily quixotic.

He made a major contribution to the surgical pump oxygenator, also known as the heart-lung machine. He invented the intra-aortic balloon pump, used to temporarily rest the heart of someone on the verge of death from congestive failure. Both devices are routinely used around the world.

He also invented an artificial ear and an artificial eye, each implanted in a few patients. They worked to a measurable degree, but not well enough to commercialize.

Medical historian Steven J. Peitzman of Drexel University called Dr. Kolff "an emblematic figure in 20th century medicine. His way of moving medicine forward was through technology. The first device that took over the function of a major organ in a reliable way was his 'artificial kidney.' "

Jarvik, who had been one of Dr. Kolff's students in Utah, became a medical rock star in the 1980s. Pictures and descriptions of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart filled newspapers around the world, although the device was only marginally successful.

That mechanical heart was an air-driven device whose power pack was wheeled around in a small shopping cart. In December 1982, surgeons at the University of Utah implanted it in the chest of a retired dentist named Barney Clark. He suffered many complications and died 112 days later.

Dr. Kolff was director of the university's Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the time. Don E. Olsen, a retired 79-year-old researcher who succeeded him, recalled yesterday that his predecessor always referred to the different versions of the mechanical heart by the name of the person under him who was doing the most work on it at the time.

"We had the Donovan heart, the Green heart, the Kwan Gett heart, the Jarvik heart," Olsen said. "But they all should have been called Kolff's heart."

The far more successful artificial kidney was Dr. Kolff's signal achievement, and it was that device that earned him the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research in 2002.

The machine was based on the simple physical principle that substances dissolved in water will move from a place where they are highly concentrated to a place where they are not concentrated if given a chance. When blood containing high concentrations of acid, urea molecules and salts is put in a porous container and placed in a bath of water, those substances will move through the pores and out of the blood.


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