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.
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