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Kolff, 'father of artificial organs,' dies at 97

Published: Thursday, Feb. 12 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Dr. Willem Johan Kolff, the former University of Utah medical pioneer who invented kidney dialysis and helped design the first artificial heart to be used in a human, died Wednesday in a Philadelphia care center of causes incident to age, family members said. He was 97.

Known in medical circles as "the father of artificial organs," many Utahns remember Dr. Kolff as one of a team of surgeons who made headlines worldwide when they implanted the artificial heart into Seattle dentist Barney Clark at University Hospital in 1982.

Clark lived for four months, then died with the heart still functioning. The feat put the U. at the forefront of artificial organ research and made Dr. Kolff and his team international medical celebrities.

The scope of Dr. Kolff's medical accomplishments included rigging the prototype for what would become the world's first kidney dialysis machine from sausage casings and an automobile water pump part as a young doctor in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II. His work eventually grew in scope and size to include bits of the artificial heart, artificial sight, artificial kidneys and placentas, and the wearable artificial lung.

Dr. Kolff published numerous books, more than 600 papers and articles, was inducted into the Inventors' Hall of Fame in 1985 and received hundreds of awards during his lifetime. In 1990, Life Magazine named him one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.

In September 2002, Dr. Kolff received the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research — considered to be the highest honor in American medicine — for his development of kidney dialysis. The nominating committee noted the invention "changed kidney failure from a fatal to a treatable disease, prolonging the useful lives of millions of patients."

Born Feb. 14, 1911, in The Netherlands, Dr. Kolff moved with his wife, Janke, and their five children to the United States in 1950. He became a U.S. citizen in 1956. He earned an M.D. at the University of Leyden Medical School in Holland, a Ph.D. (summa cum laude) at the University of Groningen, Holland, and received several honorary medical degrees.

Dr. Kolff began work on the artificial kidney in 1939, developing the rotating drum kidney in 1941, which led to the 1955 twin-coil kidney, providing the possibility of the first dialysis for kidney patients worldwide.

He began work on heart-lung machines in 1948, and the first membrane oxygenators were used successfully in patients in 1955.

Dr. Kolff's first work on the artificial heart began in 1957 at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. In 1967, he became head of the division of artificial organs at the University of Utah and director of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

Dr. Kolff once told a reporter his mind rarely took a rest from the mechanics of medical-device designs and how they could save or improve lives. "I nearly always do something. I can't bear to just lie in the sun. It would drive me crazy," he said.

Researchers at the U. during his tenure there reported it wasn't unusual to see him there at work any time of the day or night.

As a young man, Dr. Kolff worked with his hands as a carpenter on weekends, finding solutions to challenges that would provide the foundation for his future work with mechanical devices.

Dr. Kolff donated his papers to the University of Utah, giving the school a collection that provides a history of his inventions as well as glimpses into his personal life.

Dr. Donald Olsen, a former colleague and director of the Utah Artificial Heart Institute, said Dr. Kolff's work influenced most of those working today in artificial organs research.

"They either worked at some time in his lab, or he worked with them on site," Olsen said. "His influence continues to be recognized worldwide. ... His legacy is gigantic when you consider all the contributions that he has made to medicine and biomedical engineering. His list of inventions that have been used clinically in patients is very lengthy."

Olsen said his colleague's most admirable trait was the ability to "recognize new technologies and find an immediate application to his own research. He also recognized talent, so that over the years he developed a tremendously important team of researchers."

Olsen said Dr. Kolff was a "tough boss, but a fair one," who expected researchers to make convincing arguments based on evidence rather than speculation.

Dr. Kolff officially resigned his position at the U. in 1983, but he remained as acting director of the U. institute until his 65th birthday in February 1986.

He was an active advocate for abortion rights and against nuclear weapons, and enjoyed nature and art.

Dr. Kolff is survived by his five children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His son, Jack, said the family has tentative plans for a memorial service on March 7 but details are pending. Dr. Kolff requested that his body be cremated.

e-MAIL: carrie@desnews.com

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