KOLFF, WILLEM J., “Pim,” (14 February 1911-11 February 2009) was a prominent medical surgeon and inventor whose work on the artificial kidney, lung, and heart earned him the title “The Father of Artificial Organs.” Kolff served as the founding president of the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs from 1955 to 1956 and as the founder and director of the Cleveland Clinic’s first hospital-based kidney dialysis program. After leaving the Cleveland Clinic in 1967, Kolff worked at the University of Utah, where he continued to lead innovation in the fields of nephrology and cardiology.
Born in Leiden, Netherlands, Kolff became interested in the field of medicine at an early age. His father, Jacob Kolff, was the director of a tuberculosis sanatorium and inspired him to enter the field of medicine. Kolff earned his M.D. at the University of Leiden in 1937. Kolff went on to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Groningen; however, his educational career came to a halt when Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Kolff created continental Europe’s first blood bank before moving to Kampen to avoid working underneath Nazi Germany. The Red Cross awarded Kolff the silver Karl Landsteiner award in 1942 in recognition of this achievement. In Kampen, Kolff began to find success working on the artificial kidney. In 1943, Kolff created the “rotating drum kidney (RDK),” which is regarded as the first working artificial kidney. Kolff continued to work on the RDK throughout the rest of the war, successfully saving his first patient in 1945. Following the end of World War II, Kolff finished earning his Ph.D. at the University of Groningen in 1946. Kolff was invited to speak at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 1947 and was awarded the Amory Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his work on the artificial kidney. He created a modified version of his dialysis machine in 1948. In 1950, Kolff immigrated to the United States in 1950 in order to work for the CLEVELAND CLINIC FOUNDATION’s Hypertension Research Institute.
At the Cleveland Clinic, Kolff continued developing and improving the RDK and increasing advancements on kidney dialysis and open-heart surgery. During the 1950s, Kolff developed the twin-coil kidney (TCK) and patented it in 1955 through Baxter Travenol. This invention was revolutionary as it was the first inexpensive disposable artificial kidney. However, it also revealed the tension between Kolff and the Cleveland Clinic, who refused to patent his invention. Throughout the rest of his time at the Cleveland Clinic, Kolff would face a lack of support and funding. Also in 1955, Kolff was made the first president of the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs. In addition to his work on the artificial kidney and kidney dialysis, Kolff made further progress in the development of the artificial heart and open-heart surgery. In 1956, Clinic surgeons paired Kolff’s heart-lung machine with the use of potassium citrate in open-heart surgery. The potassium citrate stopped the heart temporarily during surgery while Kolff’s machine kept the patient alive. In 1957, he invented the first total artificial heart, which was successfully transplanted into a dog. Kolff was made the Director of Artificial Organs at the Cleveland Clinic; still, tensions between him and the Clinic remained high. In 1961, Kolff and his team developed the intra-aortic balloon pump, which further revolutionized heart surgery and still is used in heart surgeries.
Throughout the rest of the 1960s, Kolff advocated for advancements on the artificial kidney and heart. Kolff pushed for affordable long-term kidney dialysis treatment; his work on the “Maytag washing machine dialysis” showcases his dedication to providing patients with affordable treatment. However, as a result of the lack of support from the Cleveland Clinic, Kolff left the Clinic in 1967 and moved to the University of Utah. At the University of Utah, Kolff continued to improve his work on the artificial kidney and heart. Kolff also began to work on artificial limbs, the artificial eye, and the artificial ear. By 1970, Kolff founded his first company, Vital Assist, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Additionally, various sources report that Kolff was knighted by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and has the title of Commander of the Order of Oranje-Nassau. For the rest of his career, Kolff continued to improve the artificial kidney, kidney dialysis, and the artificial heart. Following his dedication to the affordability and accessibility of treatment, Kolff developed the first Wearable Artificial Kidney in 1975, granting patients more control of their treatment. Although he never won the Nobel Prize, he was repeatedly nominated and won Japan’s equivalent, the Japan Prize, in 1986. In 1997, he retired from the University of Utah and moved to Philadelphia. He continued to work on artificial organs until 2002 when he retired for a second time.
Outside of his direct contributions to the field of medicine, Kolff served as an inspiring mentor and colleague to those who worked with him. His international reputation praised not just his abilities as an inventor but also his supportive nature. Many individuals who worked with Kolff became close friends with him; some regarded him as a father figure. In his own personal life, Kolff married his childhood sweetheart, Janke Huidekoper, in 1937. Together, they had five children, Jack, Kees, Therus, Albert, and Adrie. Kolff and Janke divorced in 2000. Nine years later, on February 11, Kolff passed away at age 97. He was cremated. Following his death in 2009, various obituaries and articles detailing Kolff’s medical contributions were published, highlighting his importance to the field of medicine.
Effler, Donald B., Laurence K. Groves, F. Mason Sones, Jr., and Willem J. Kolff. "Elective Cardiac Arrest in Open-Heart Surgery: Report of Three Cases." Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine 23, no. 2 (April 1956): 105-114.
Kolff, Willem J., Donald B. Effler, Laurence K. Groves, Gerrit Peereboom, and Patricia P. Moraca. "Disposable Membrane Oxygenator (Heart-Lung Machine) and its use in Experimental Surgery." Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine 23, no. 2 (April 1956): 69-97.
Kolff, Willem J., Patricia P. Moraca, Donald E. Hale, and William L. Proudfit. "A Demonstration of the Role of Potassium and Citrate Ions Under the Conditions of Elective Cardiac Arrest for Open-Heart Operation." Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine 24, no. 2 (April 1957): 128-132.
Stanley, Theodore H. "A Tribute to Dr. Willem J. Kolff: Innovative Inventor, Physician, Scientist, Bioengineer, Mentor, and Significant Contributor to Modern Cardiovascular Surgical and Anesthetic Practice." Journal of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Anesthesia 27, no. 3 (June 2013): 600-613.