What could you do with some tin cans, an old washing machine, sausage casings, and salt water? If you’re Dr. Willem Kolff, you could replace a human kidney. The Netherlander spent his formative years studying medicine in the Netherlands, especially interested in how a young twenty-something could be dying of renal failure. It was in the middle of World War II that he managed to become the father of artificial organs.
Thanks for nothing, MacGyver.
Kolff came to the Dutch University of Groningen in 1938, two years before the Nazis invaded Holland. As he watched a 22-year-old die slowly from kidney failure, he came to believe if he could find a way to remove the toxins from his body – the job normally performed by the kidneys – he could have saved the man’s life. Eventually, using sausage casings and salt water, he discovered the sausage casings would effectively separate urea, the waste products filtered by the kidneys, from the salt water.
Then, the Nazis invaded Holland.
His hospital in Groningen was soon filled with Nazi sympathizers. Rather than accept this and allow his advances to be used by the Third Reich, Kolff left the city and moved to rural Holland. While there, he not only defied the Nazis but took in some 800 people whom he hid from the Gestapo in his hospital, all the while continuing to work on his artificial kidney.
The first artificial kidney, created by Dr. Kolff.
Eventually, Kolff would complete the artificial kidney, as the rest of Europe was engulfed in World War II. His design used 50 yards of sausage casing wrapped around a wooden drum, all in a salt solution. As the blood was fed into the device, the machine was rotated, which cleaned the blood. Using orange juice cans and a washing machine, he designed a water pump based on Ford motor designs. The first 15 patients died on these early dialysis machines. Then a 67-year-old woman survived.
It changed the medical world forever. Thousands of people who would otherwise die a painful death from kidney failure now had a chance at survival. By 1956, Kolff was an American citizen. He would later develop the means to oxygenate blood during bypass surgery and even an artificial heart.
Kolff died in 2009 at age 97 – of natural causes.