World and Nation

Willem Kolff, Inventor of Kidney And Heart Machines, Dies at 97

Dr. Willem J. Kolff, a resourceful Dutch physician who invented the first artificial kidney in a rural hospital during World War II, using sausage casings and even orange juice cans, and went on to build the first artificial heart, died Wednesday at his home in Newtown Square, Pa. Kolff, whose work has been credited with saving millions of lives, was 97.

His death was announced by the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where Kolff was distinguished professor emeritus of bioengineering, surgery and medicine. He died of natural causes, his son Therus said.

Kolff, who immigrated to the United States in 1950, was widely regarded as the father of artificial organs, having proved that biomedical engineers could build all sorts of artificial organs for keeping patients alive. His artificial kidney evolved into modern dialysis machines for cleansing the blood of people whose kidneys have failed, preserving countless lives.

His membrane oxygenator, which provided a way to add oxygen to blood as it passed through a machine, is still used in heart-lung machines during open-heart surgery.

His artificial heart — though it carried the name of a colleague, Dr. Robert Jarvik — is still in use, in subsequent designs, as a bridge to transplantation in patients with heart failure.

The artificial heart was first implanted into a person, a 61-year-old retired dentist named Dr. Barney Clark, in 1982. It carried Jarvik’s name because it was Kolff’s policy to attach the name of the co-worker who was currently working on any particular model of artificial heart, according to Kolff’s biographer, Herman Broers, in the book “Inventor for Life” (B&V Media Publishers, 2007).

When it came time to implant a heart into a patient, Broers said, the Jarvik-7 was chosen because it had a multilayer diaphragm, designed by Jarvik, that proved crucial to the device’s success. But credit for the artificial heart belongs to Kolff.

As a young physician at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 1938, Kolff watched a young man die a slow, agonizing death from temporary kidney failure. He reasoned that if he could find a way to remove the toxic waste products that build up in the blood of such patients, he could keep them alive until their kidneys rebounded.

For his first experiment, Kolff filled sausage casings with blood, expelled the air, added a kidney waste product called urea and agitated the contraption in a bath of salt water. The casings were semipermeable. Small molecules of urea could pass through the membrane, while larger blood molecules might not.

In five minutes, all the urea had moved into the salt water. The concept for building an artificial kidney was born. But it soon went underground.

In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Rather than cooperate with Nazi sympathizers put in charge at Groningen, Kolff moved to a small hospital in Kampen, on the Zuider Zee (now called the Ijsselmeer), to wait out the war. While there, he set up Europe’s first blood bank and saved more than 800 people from Nazi labor camps by hiding them in his hospital.