Dr. Willem Kolff

Professor, Inventor


Dutch American Heritage Award 1999 Recipient

Dr. Willem Kolff’s accomplishments in the field of artificial organ technology remain unparalleled.  Listed by LIFE Magazine as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. Dr. Kolff is best known for his efforts, whether solo or collaborative, in the development of the artificial kidney and artificial heart. The artificial heart is used as a bridge for donor hearts. Dr. Kolff serves as an inspiration for many in his pursuit to grant a better life for sufferers of ill health.

Born as the oldest son of the director of a sanitarium in Beekbergen, Holland, he first studied in Leiden and later in Groningen. Assistants who worked with him in Kampen remember him as an untiring workhorse who was always intensely busy with his patients and a multitude of new and revolutionary ideas as how to treat them.

During World War II he displayed some other strong opinions, and as a dedicated anti-Nazi he was able to save hundreds of persons, arrested by the Germans, in his position at the hospital in Kampen. If necessary he would even make them sick, so as to wrestle them from the Nazi’s.

In 1951 he went to the United States and first worked in Cleveland and later in Salt Lake City. Dr. Kolff is one of the most driven persons, who now at 88 years of age, is still actively pursuing new ideas. “I retired October 10, 1987, but that is over!”

He is also responsible for the Heart-Lung machine and the now indispensable so-called intra-aortic balloon pump (1961) with which 2,000,000 people in the US are being treated each year.

Dr. Kolff believes the artificial heart will soon surpass the artificial kidney in the number of patients treated. He believes an enjoyable existence will be possible for people now doomed to die, even if it means an artificial heart implanted in the chest tethered with drivelines in a portable system. However, he has great hopes for the “Clamshell-Electro-Hydraulic” artificial heart, which is totally implantable (1990).

The feasibility of the artificial eye was proven together with Dr. William Deballe by direct stimulation of the visual vortex of the brain.  The artificial ear, developed with Dr. Donald Eddington uses another principle. It stimulates, as was done earlier by House brothers, the acoustic nerve in the cochleas.  One-third of the totally deaf people provided with the Utah artificial ear can have a telephone conversation.  The artificial arm, developed with Dr. Stephen Jacobsen, is sensitive enough to peel an orange, yet strong enough to crack a nut.

The main aim of Dr. Kolff’s endeavors has been, and still is, to restore people to an enjoyable existence. If it cannot be enjoyable, it should not be done.

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