This Resistance Fighter Invented Dialysis in Nazi-Occupied Holland

This Resistance Fighter Invented Dialysis in Nazi-Occupied Holland

When Willem Johan Kolff invented dialysis, the "father" of artificial organs was just getting started.

One of the Netherlands’ most famous pieces of pop culture is “Soldier of Orange.” It’s the title of the country’s most celebrated war memoir, movie and epic stage musical, all of which detail the exploits of the nation’s resistance fighters during World War II.

Willem Johan Kolff was a member of the Dutch resistance, but he doesn’t rate a mention in the “Solider of Orange” canon. Yet his wartime toils in a rural backwater not only changed medicine, but the world.

Kolff had been a physician less than two years before Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. He had been engaged in post-graduate studies at the University of Gronigen but withdrew because he refused to accommodate the demands of the Nazi occupiers. Kolff’s Jewish supervisor made an even starker choice: He committed suicide.

After his departure from the university, Kolff took a job managing a small hospital in Kampen. Located 50 miles from the heavily populated coastal region, the facility was far enough away from the prying eyes of Germans that not only could Kolff care for patients, he could hide fellow resistance fighters and even Jewish refugees in relative safety. Kolff coached many of them to feign convincing terminal illnesses so the Nazis would allow them to remain in the hospital.

Despite the demands of practicing medicine and resistance work, Kolff still found time to conduct research. He had been haunted and inspired when, not long before the Nazi invasion, one of his patients died in agony from kidney disease. Kolff wanted to find a way to save future patients.

He broke his problem down to a simple task: If he could remove 20 grams of urea from a patient’s blood in 24 hours, they would survive. He began experimenting with ways to filter blood and return it to a patient’s body. Since the war had ground all non-military manufacturing to a halt, he was mostly forced to make do with material he could find at the hospital and around Kampen. Kolff eventually built a device from a washing machine parts, juice cans, sausage casings, a valve from an old Ford automobile radiator, and even scrap from a downed German aircraft.

The world’s first dialysis machine was hardly imposing; it resembled a rotating drum for a bingo game or raffle. Yet it carried on the highly sophisticated task of moving a patient’s blood through a semi-permeable membrane (about a 50-foot length of sausage casings) into a saline solution that drew out urea while leaving the blood cells untouched.

In emigrating to the U.S. to practice medicine, Kolff's intent was twofold: Advocate for a wider adoption of dialysis, and work on new projects. He wildly succeeded at both.

Kolff began using the machine to treat patients in 1943, most of whom had lapsed into comas due to their kidney failure. But like most groundbreaking medical devices, it was not an immediate success. By the end of the war, Kolff had dialyzed more than a dozen patients, but all had died. He briefly suspended use of the device after the Allied invasion of Europe, but he continued to refine its operation and the administration of blood thinners to patients.

In September 1945, Kolff dialyzed another comatose patient, 67-year-old Sofia Maria Schafstadt. She regained consciousness after 11 hours, and would live well into the 1950s with Kolff’s assistance. Yet this triumph contained a dark irony: At the time of her treatment, Schafstadt had been imprisoned for collaborating with the Germans.

With a tattered Europe struggling to overcome the destruction of the war, Kolff and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, where he began working for the Cleveland Clinic while undergoing the naturalization process so he could practice medicine in the U.S. His intent was twofold: Advocate for a wider adoption of dialysis, and work on new projects. He wildly succeeded at both.

By the mid-1950s, dialysis machines had become reliable and life-saving medical devices, and Kolff had become a U.S. citizen. About that time he invented a membrane oxygenator that could be used in heart bypass surgeries. This was a critical component of the heart-lung machine, which would make heart transplants possible and bypass surgeries routine. He also invented among the very first practical artificial hearts, which in 1957 kept a dog alive for 90 minutes.

Kolff moved to the University of Utah in 1967 to become director of its Institute for Biomedical Engineering. It was a promising time for such a move, as the first successful transplant of a donor heart to a human occurred that year. But he was interested in going a step further and creating an artificial heart for human use.

It took more than a decade of tinkering and research, but in 1982, a team of physicians and engineers led by Kolff succeeded in implanting the first artificial heart in dentist Barney Clark, whose failing health disqualified him from a heart transplant. Although Clark died in March 1983 after 112 days tethered to the device, that it kept him alive generated international headlines. While graduate student Robert Jarvik received the named credit for the heart, he was directly supervised by Kolff, whose various endeavors into artificial organ research at the University of Utah were segmented into numerous teams.

Forty years later, several artificial hearts have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, although all are a “bridge” that allow patients to wait for a transplant.

Kolff continued researching and tinkering with biomedical devices – including artificial eyes and ears – until he retired in 1997 at the age of 86. When he died in 2009, the medical community acknowledged that he was not only a pioneer in biotechnology, but the “father” of artificial organs.

Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.
How to Use Thoughts to Control Computers with Dr. Tom Oxley

Leaps.org talks with Dr. Tom Oxley, founding CEO of Synchron, a company that's taking a unique - and less invasive - approach to "brain-computer interfaces" for patients with ALS and other mobility challenges.


Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.

The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.

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Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.

Indigenous wisdom plus honeypot ants could provide new antibiotics

Indigenous people in Australia dig pits next to a honeypot colony. Scientists think the honey can be used to make new antimicrobial drugs.

Danny Ulrich

For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.

The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”

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Lina Zeldovich

Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.