Willem Johan Kolff

(b. 1911)

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(1911– )

US physician, born in the Netherlands, who pioneered the science of biomedical engineering. During World War II he invented the kidney dialysis machine and in 1982 he and his colleagues performed the first heart transplant using an artificial heart.

Born in Leiden, the son of a doctor, Kolff was educated at the University of Leiden Medical School. He did postgraduate research at Groningen University and worked there until the German occupation of the Netherlands, when he moved to Kampen rather than work under a Nazi director. During this time he developed crude versions of his kidney dialysis machine and later supplied researchers in Britain, Canada, and the USA with his successful design.

Kolff emigrated to the USA in 1950 to join the staff of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (1950–67), where he studied cardiovascular problems. In collaboration with a student he designed a successful artificial heart–lung machine that made open heart surgery possible; he also invented the intra-aortic balloon pump to help circulation during heart attacks (1961). His most ambitious idea was to design an artificial heart and in 1957 he implanted one in a dog, which survived for ninety minutes. In 1967 Kolff moved to the University of Utah as director of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and head of the Division of Artificial Organs, heading a team developing new prostheses and artificial organs. He has championed the trend towards home dialysis and in 1975 produced the wearable artificial kidney. In 1982, twenty-five years after his operation on the dog, Kolff and his colleagues used an aluminium and plastic heart to replace the diseased heart of Dr Barney Clark, who survived for 112 days.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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