Father of Artificial Organs: Willem J. Kolff

The Willem Johan Kolff papers (http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv39526) contain materials that record the many artificial organ projects, from early dialysis to the first artificial heart implant, as well as the personal life of one of the world’s most respected pioneering doctors.

Dr. Willem Johan Kolff has been an internationally-known name in the world of medicine since 1957 when he began working on the total artificial heart at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.  Known as the “Father of Artificial Organs”, his pioneering spirit actually led him to make giant leaps in medicine long before he was so well-known.

Born February 14, 1911, in Leyden, The Netherlands, Dr. Kolff went to the University of Groningen for his residency in medicine during the German occupation.  He started working on the artificial kidney in 1939, and became the first internist at a small hospital in Kampen, where he continued the work on the artificial kidney.  The rotating drum kidney was developed in 1941, and by 1955 the twin-coil kidney had led to the possibility of dialysis worldwide. Work on the heart-lung machines began in 1948, and the first membrane oxygenators were used successfully in patients in 1955.

In 1950, Dr. Kolff and his family immigrated to the United States where he began working in the Research Department and the Department of Surgery of the Cleveland Clinic.  He worked on the artificial kidney, the heart lung machine, and invented the total artificial heart in 1957, one year after becoming a United States citizen.  He became Scientific Director of Cleveland’s Artificial Organ program, then moved to Utah in 1967 to direct the Division of Artificial Organs and the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

At the Division of Artificial Organs and the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Kolff was in charge of teams working on artificial kidneys, artificial hearing, the artificial eye, artificial arm, the subcutaneous peritoneal access device, and the artificial heart.  In 1982 Dr. Barney Clark received the first “permanent artificial heart” implanted in a human.  This event made the University of Utah known throughout the world as the leader in artificial organ research.

Dr. Kolff has received more than a hundred awards, among these the prestigious Japan Prize in 1986.  He has published more than six hundred articles.  Dr. Kolff was Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Surgery, and Research Professor of Engineering and Director of his Lab, where he worked to perfect the artificial heart.

This amazing collection, consisting of 708 boxes, is available to the public.  Please contact Special Collection at 801-581-8863 for more information.

Please visit the Special Collections Reading Room on Level 4 of the J. Marriott Library, Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 6:00 pm and Saturday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm.

Written by Betsey Welland.

  • Michael Kintner-Meyer
    Posted at 12:40h, 06 November Reply

    As one of the many foreign exchange students of Dr. Kolff’s, i remember him well.

    If anyone know what happened to the animal hospital where the test animals where kept and operated on, i would appreciate some info. In the day we called it old St. Mark’s Hospital.

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