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Willem Johan Kolff

Willem Johan Kolff
Born February 14, 1911(1911-02-14)
Leiden, Netherlands
Died February 11, 2009 (aged 97)
Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, United States
Occupation Physician, Inventor

Willem Johan "Pim" Kolff (February 14, 1911 – February 11, 2009) was a pioneer of hemodialysis as well as in the field of artificial organs. Willem is a member of the Kolff family, an old Dutch patrician family. He migrated in 1950 to the United States, where he obtained the US citizenship in 1955.


The Netherlands

Born in Leiden, Netherlands, Kolff studied medicine in his hometown at Leiden University, and continued as a resident in internal medicine at Groningen University. One of his first patients there was a 22-year old man who was slowly dying of renal failure. This prompted Kolff to perform research on artificial renal function replacement. Also during his residency, Kolff organised the first blood bank in Europe (in 1940).

During World War II, he was based in Kampen, where he was active in the resistance against the German occupation. Simultaneously, Kolff developed the first functioning artificial kidney.[1] He treated his first patient in 1943, and in 1945 he was first able to save a patient's life with hemodialysis treatment. In 1946 he obtained a PhD degree summa cum laude at University of Groningen on the subject. It marks the start of a treatment that has saved the lives of millions of acute or chronic renal failure patients ever since.


Shortly afterwards, in 1950, he left the Netherlands, sensing opportunity in the United States. At the Cleveland Clinic, he was involved in the development of heart-lung machines to maintain heart and pulmonary function during cardiac surgery. He also improved on his dialysis machine.

He became head of the University of Utah's Division of Artificial Organs and Institute for Biomedical Engineering in 1967, where he was involved in the development of the artificial heart, the first of which was implanted in 1982 in patient Barney Clark, who survived for four months with the heart still functioning at the time of Clark's death.[1]


Kolff is considered as the Father of Artificial Organs, and has been regarded one of the most important physicians of the twentieth century.[1] He obtained more than 12 honorary doctorates at universities all over the world, and more than 120 international rewards, among them the AMA Scientific Achievement Award in 1982, the Japan Prize in 1986, the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research in 2002, and the Russ Prize in 2003. In 1990 he was named by Life Magazine in its list of the 100 Most Important Persons of the 20th Century. He was a co-nominee with William H. Dobelle for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003. Robert Jarvik, who worked in Kolff's laboratory at the University of Utah beginning in 1971, credited Kolff with inspiring him to develop the first permanent artificial heart.[2]

Kolff died three days short of his 98th birthday on February 11, 2009 in a care center in Philadelphia.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Moore, Carrie A. "Kolff, 'father of artificial organs,' dies at 97", Deseret News, February 11, 2009. Accessed February 11, 2009.
  2. ^ Milestones, Time Magazine, March 2,2009, p.18


  • Paul Heiney. The Nuts and Bolts of Life: Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Kidney Machine. Sutton Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7509-2896-4.
  • Herman Broers. Inventor for Life: The Story of W. J. Kolff, Father of Artificial Organs. B&V Media, 2007. ISBN 90-78430-01-X.

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