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Dr. Willem Kolff: The 'Father of Artificial Organs'

by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor | February 25, 2012
From the January/February 2012 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

In 1950, Kolff became the department head of artificial organs and a professor of clinical investigations at the Cleveland Clinic, where he continued his work on the artificial kidney. A few years later, he became a United States citizen.

By the late 1960s Kolff relocated to the University of Utah, where he served as head of the School of Medicine’s division of artificial organs and led the Institute for Biomedical Engineering. While there, he became involved in the development of several versions of the artificial heart, including the Jarvik 7 (named after his colleague, Robert Jarvik), which, in 1982, became the first artificial heart to be used in a human being. The recipient, a 61-year-old retired dentist named Barney Clark, survived for approximately four months following the procedure. The artificial heart is now primarily used as a temporary solution for heart failure patients who are awaiting a transplant.

Kolff was inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 1985. Five years later, Life magazine named him one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. A founding member of the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs, he published numerous books, papers and articles throughout his career and received over a dozen doctorate degrees from universities around the globe. He was the recipient of many awards, including the 2002 Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research for his work on kidney dialysis. The committee who nominated him for the prestigious award described his invention as having “changed kidney failure from a fatal to a treatable disease, prolonging the useful lives of millions of patients.”

Later in his career, Kolff’s research focused on the development of artificial ears, limbs and eyes. The father of five children, he died from natural causes in February 2009, shortly before his 98th birthday.

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