Widely considered the “father” of the field of artificial organs, Willem J. Kolff, University of Utah distinguished professor emeritus of bioengineering, surgery and medicine, passed away at the age of 97 on February 11, 2009, in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Dr. Kolff invented the kidney dialysis machine and was instrumental in the development of the artificial heart and the artificial eye.

Dr. Kolff based his highly productive research career on collaborative research because he believed it to be the most effective way of achieving his goal in developing and exploiting the possibilities of artificial human organs as a means to “restore people to an enjoyable existence.”

Because of his groundbreaking work on the artificial kidney, millions of patients worldwide have benefited from life-sustaining hemodialysis. His artificial heart is still in use, in subsequent designs, as a bridge to transplantation in patients with heart failure. Dr. Kolff’s broad vision inspired his colleagues to explore a wide variety of organs: an effort that contributed to pioneering research on such other artificial devices as the lung, placenta, ear, arms, and legs.

Dr. Kolff was born in Leiden in the Netherlands, where he received his medical and doctoral degrees. As a young physician in the Netherlands before World War II, he developed an interest in the artificial kidney when he witnessed the death of a young man due to kidney failure. In 1939, he began developing the first crude artificial kidney by finding parts and materials from a local factory. In 1945, the first patient was saved with the device. After the war, in 1950, Dr. Kolff and his family came to the United States to join the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio as a researcher. At Cleveland, he turned to the study of cardiovascular problems and built one of the first heart-lung machines, a device that made open-heart surgery possible for the first time. He also improved his dialysis machine.

In 1967, Dr. Kolff came to the University of Utah where he headed the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and the Division of Artificial Organs. He continued work on the artificial heart and in 1982, under his supervision, the first “permanent” artificial heart was implanted in a human patient, Barney Clark, who survived 112 days. 

Dr. Kolff’s presence at the University of Utah acted as a magnet to attract scientists from all over the world who were interested in artificial organ research, and under his leadership, the University of Utah has since developed one of the world’s leading artificial organ research centers.

Dr. Kolff officially retired in 1986, but continued to work as a research professor and director of the Kolff Laboratory at the University of Utah until 1997.

Over his long career, Dr. Kolff received numerous awards for his work, including the 2002 Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, one of the highest honors in American medicine, as well as more than 12 honorary doctorates from universities all over the world.

Read more on Willem J. Kolff.