Dr. Kolff was born on February 14, 1911, in Leiden in the Netherlands. He received his medical degree at the University of Leiden Medical School in Holland in 1938. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Groningen in Holland in 1946. As a young physician in the Netherlands before World War II, he developed an interest in the artificial kidney when he witnessed the death of a young man due to kidney failure. In 1939 he began developing the first crude artificial kidney by finding parts and materials from a local factory in Nazi-occupied Holland. By 1942 he developed a prototype machine, and three years later the first patient was saved by an artificial kidney.
After the war, Dr. Kolff and his family immigrated to the United States in 1950, and he joined the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio as a researcher. At Cleveland he turned to the study of cardiovascular problems. His first work on an artificial heart began in 1957. He built one of the first heart-lung machines, a device that made open-heart surgery possible for the first time. He also improved his dialysis machine. The first membrane oxygenators were used successfully in patients in 1955.
In 1967, Dr. Kolff went to the University of Utah, where he headed the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and the Division of Artificial Organs. He continued his work on the artificial heart, and in 1982, under his supervision, the first “permanent” artificial heart was implanted into Seattle dentist Barney Clark at the University of Utah Hospital. Clark survived four months. When he died, the artificial heart was still functioning. The feat put the University of Utah at the forefront of artificial organ research and made Dr. Kolff and his team international medical celebrities.
Dr. Kolff’s presence at the University of Utah acted as a magnet to attract scientists from all over the world who were interested in artificial organ research, and under his leadership the university has since developed one of the world’s leading artificial organ research centers. Although he officially retired in 1986, Dr. Kolff continued to work as a research professor and director of the Kolff Laboratory at the University of Utah until 1997.