Willem Kolff

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 21 May 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2027
  1. Tony Sheldon

    Invented the kidney dialysis machine and developed the artificial heart

    It was among the hardships of Nazi occupied Holland that Willem “Pim” Kolff’s ingenuity and determination bore fruit. This hybrid doctor-inventor used a water pump from a Ford model T, an aluminium drum made from a downed German warplane, and cellophane used to make sausages to create the world’s first kidney dialysis machine.

    He developed a method of taking blood from a patient and passing it through the semipermeable cellophane tube wrapped around a drum. This rotated like a washing machine through a bath of salt water to absorb the excess urea. The treated blood was then returned to the patient.

    This way he treated 17 patients from 1943 to 1945, while the second world war brought increased deprivation. The last patient survived. It was just a few months after liberation. The techniques of dialysis moved on, but the basic principles by which Kolff saved his patient’s life, remain.

    Problems of dialysis

    Kolff was born in Leiden in 1911 and grew up in the east of the Netherlands, where his father, Jacob, was the director of a …

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