Who is Willem Kolff?

Prof. Willem Johan 'Pim' Kolff (1911 - 2009) is the inventor of the artificial kidney (1943) and the artificial heart (1956) and pioneered the development of numerous organ replacement therapies in the period 1943 - 1997. He is regarded worldwide as the father of the artificial organs and as one of the most important medical inventors of the twentieth century. In his career he has received thirteen honorary degrees from universities around the world and 127 international awards. His inventions save the lives of millions of people around the world to this day. 

W.J. Kolff in 2003


1911 - 1941

Willem Johan Kolff, also known as Pim, was born in a room in Hotel Rijnland on the Beestenmarkt in Leiden on 14 February 1911, the eldest of five sons in a family of doctors. He grew up in Hummelo (Achterhoek) and in Beekbergen (near Apeldoorn), where his father Jacob Kolff is director of a tuberculosis sanatorium. In the 1930s, Kolff studied at the medical faculty of the University of Leiden, where he successfully passed his medical finals in 1937. In the same year he married Janke Huidekoper and Kolff left for Groningen, where he specialized in internal medicine at the University of Groningen. As the youngest assistant in the internal department of the Academic Hospital, Kolff comes under the care of the Jewish professor Leo Polak Daniëls.

In 1938 Kolff sees a 22-year-old Groningen farmer's son dying of chronic kidney infection on one of the four beds assigned to him. Kolff goes in search of a treatment method, because he does not want to accept that kidney patients are doomed to die solely because the cleansing capacity of their organs is insufficient. When the Second World War breaks out in May 1940, Professor Polak Daniëls and his wife commit suicide, which makes a big impression on the young Kolff. He decides to leave the Groningen hospital because he refuses to work under a National Socialist successor.


1941 - 1950

On 1 July 1941 Kolff was appointed as an internist in the small town hospital of the Engelenberg Foundation in Kampen, where he continued his kidney research. The moment Kolff delves into the problem, kidney disease is a deadly disease. When a person's blood is no longer cleansed, a patient dies a horrible death, because the waste that the kidneys drain from the human body through urine accumulates and literally seeks a way out of the body. There has been previous research into an artificial kidney, but none of the inventions are suitable for human use so far.

During the war years, in addition to his work as an internist at the Kamper hospital, Kolff focused on developing an artificial kidney. He takes a practical approach to medical science and looks for simple and easily accessible aids. For example, Kolff secretly asks for help from Henk Berk, director of the Kamper Enamel Factories, who supplies enamel for parts of the artificial kidney. The local Ford dealer Johann van den Noort sr. supplies him with the water pump of a Model Model T that drives the artificial kidney. At the end of 1942, the first artificial kidney was ready and Kolff started treating patients. On Wednesday 17 March 1943, in the middle of the night, he performs the very first 'haemodialysis' on a patient, the flushing of blood to replace the kidneys with a machine outside the body. Between March 17, 1943 and July 27, 1944 Kolff and his team attempt saving the lives of (in all) fifteen patients by connecting them to an artificial kidney. All die, except one. The successful treatment of a 29-year old woman, Janny Schrijver, makes world history. On April 4, 1943 Kolff connects her directly to an artificial kidney and she survives for four weeks before dying on May 4 following further medical complications (artery access problems). But a giant step has been made: for the first time ever a patient has survived with the aid of an artificial kidney.  


Janny Schrijver – 1943

17 maart 1943 Behandeling met bloed uit via kunstnier en bloed terug principe, intermitterende behandeling.

4 april 1943 Behandeling door continue aansluiting aan een kunstnier. Wereldprimeur: eerste geslaagde dialyse met hulp van kunstnier. De patiënte overleeft maar overlijdt na vier weken en meerdere behandelingen als gevolg van problemen met vaattoegang.

March 17, 1943 Treatment with blood out, through the artificial kidney, and then returning to the patient, intermittent treatment.

April 4, 1943 Successful treatment by continuous connection to an artificial kidney, the world’s first. The patient survives for four weeks. Unfortunately, on May 4 she died following artery access problems.


Source picture: Herman Broers


Eerste serie kunstnieren Kolff 1944

During the Second World War, Kolff set up the very first blood bank on the European mainland in the May days of 1940 on the Zuidwal in The Hague. In Kampen Kolff grows into a crucial figure in the local resistance. By simulating illnesses in people who are in danger of being arrested by the German occupier, Kolff manages to keep resistance fighters and Jews out of the hands of the Nazis. He also helps hundreds of Rotterdam men to escape, who were arrested during mass raids for employment in Germany. From the 10,500 men who moor by ship during gruesome transports for a stopover in Kampen, Kolff manages to select 1200 'sick people' who he places in various emergency hospitals. More than 800 of them escaped with the help of Kolff and his followers.

Just after the liberation, on September 11, 1945, the seventeenth patient with an artificial kidney was the first to be saved permanently with this treatment. Maria Sofia Schafstadt, 67, is a member of the NSB, and is the first kidney patient in the world who thanks to Kolff's invention continues with her life.  

On January 6, 1946, Kolff obtained a doctorate in medicine at the University of Groningen with a dissertation on the artificial kidney. 


In the first post-war years, Kolff started developing a heart-lung machine, a device that can take over the functioning of the heart and lungs during heart surgery. In the post-war Netherlands, however, too few resources are available for both kidney and heart-lung research.staf Stadsziekenhuis Kampen 1946


1950 - 1997 

At the beginning of 1950 Kolff decided to emigrate at the age of 39 with his wife Janke and five young children (Jacob, Adrie, Albert, Kees and Therus) to the United States, where he obtained American nationality in 1955 and successfully devoted himself to developing new artificial organs. In 1956 Kolff puts his first heart-lung machine on the market. This device makes it possible to operate on people with a heart attack for the first time. In 1956 he also started his second major life's work: developing an artificial heart.Kolff en zijn team in Cleveland 1966


Kolff en Van Noordwijk bij replica kunstnier 2003

In 1967, Kolff became a professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. There he sets up a world-renowned laboratory for artificial organs that gives Salt Lake City the nickname "Biocon Valley." From the sixties and seventies, the development of the artificial heart under Kolff's leadership took off. This leads to the first insertion of an artificial heart into a human in Salt Lake City in 1982, attracting the attention of the world press. The patient, retired 61-year-old dentist Barney Clark of Seattle, survives 112 days before dying of pneumonia.

Kolff's active research into new and better artificial organs continued until 2005. At the age of 93, Kolff was still working. Until the end of 2006, despite his deteriorating hearing and vision, he lectured around the world and worked for at least five hours a day to improve artificial organs. The president of the University of Utah once said, "Dr. Kolff never stops. If his pace slows down, we just replace what's worn out with what he made himself." In December 2006 Kolff retired for the third time (the first time was 1986, the second time 1997, but he kept picking up the thread).

1997 - 2009

Kolff is regarded as the Father of the Artificial Organs, making him one of the most important medical inventors of the twentieth century. He has received a total of thirteen honorary degrees from universities around the world and has received 127 international awards, including the prestigious Japan Prize (1985), the Lasker Award (2002) and the Russ Award (February 2003). He was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize, but he did not win it. In 1970 Kolff became Commander in the Order of Orange Nassau. In 1985 he was inducted into the American Inventor's Hall of Fame. In 1990 the American magazine 'Life' named him one of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century. In 2004 Kolff received similar recognition in the Netherlands: he finished in 47th place in the public election 'De Grootste Nederlander', a list of one hundred most important people in Dutch history, organized by De Telegraaf, the KRO and the Historisch Nieuwsblad. A year later he was chosen as the Greatest Overijsselaar of all time.

The National Academy of Engineering, the national engineering organization of the United States that presented Kolff with the Russ Award in February 2003, has calculated that since the invention of the artificial kidney in Kampen, more than 20 million people have owed their lives to Kolff's work. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people around the world receive medical treatment that would not have been possible without his work.



Kolff died on February 11, 2009, three days after being 98 years old. Kolff's ashes were taken to the Netherlands and buried in the garden of the former City Hospital building in Kampen. The restored building has been in use since 2005 as a residential care concern IJsselheem, location Myosotis.

In 2003 the Willem Kolff Foundation was established. In 2009, the research institute for biomedical engineering and artificial organs of the University of Groningen was renamed the W.J. Kolff Institute. In 2013, Pim Kolff and Janke Kolff-Huidekoper jointly received the posthumous Yad Vashem award as 'Righteous Among the Nations' for saving Jewish lives during the Second World War. Kampen has had a Dr. Kolfflaan, in 2017 Beekbergen got a Willem Kolffweg.