kolff: history: persons: willem johan kolff: 2

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Prof.dr. Willem Johan Kolff (1911-2009)

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1940 - 1950

On the day of the German invasion, May 19 1940, Kolff happened to be in The Hague attending a funeral. Seeing German bombers pass overhead, he made his excuses and went straight to the city’s main hospital, where casualties were already pouring in, and asked if they would like him to set up a blood bank. Provided with a car and an armed escort, he drove through the city’s streets, dodging sniper bullets, and bought bottles, tubes, needles, citrate and other paraphernalia. Four days later, at the Zuidwal Hospital at The Hague the first bloodbank in Europe was operational.

One month after the german occupation of the Netherlands professor Polak Daniëls and his wife commit suicide. This leaves a deep impact on Kolff. He decides to leave the Groningen academical hospital because he refuses to work with the successor, a National Socialist. Kolff is appointed internal medic on July 1, 1940, at the small town hospital of Kampen. Here he continues his kidney research. At that time a kidney problem is a deadly disease. When the blood is not cleaned any longer the patient dies a horrible death, because the debriss that accumulates in the body finds other ways out of the body than the usual way with the urine. Earlier research had been done for an artificial kidney, but up to then no invention was good enough for human use.

During the occupation years Kolff continues his research on the artificial kidney, apart from his work as an internal medic at the hospital in Kampen. He uses a practical approach and looks for easy to use and simple devices. Secretly he asks for the help of Henk Berk, director of the Kamper Emaille Fabrieken (Kampen Enamel Factories), who supplies enamel for parts of the artificial kidney. The local Ford dealer supplies him with the pump of a T-Ford which will be the engine for the kidney. End 1942 the first artificial kidney is ready for use and Kolff starts the treatment of patients. In the night of Wednesday March 17, 1943, he performs the very first hemodialysis on a patient: the cleaning of the blood, replacing the funtion of the kidneys, with a machine outside the body of the patient.

In Kampen Kolff becomes one of the leading figures of the local resistance. By simulating sickness with people who are about to be shipped away to Germany by the Germans, Kolff manages to keep many resistance people and jews out of the hands of the nazis. He manages to help 100s of Rotterdam men escape from labour work in Germany. Of the 10,500 people that were transported by ship through Kampen during these years, Kolff manages to select 1200 ‘ill’ people whom he accomodates in several emergency hospitals. In the end 800 of them manage to escape the Germans thanks to the help of Kolff and his fellow men in the resistance.

Not long after the liberation of the Netherlands, on September 11, 1945, the 17th patient treated with the artificial kidney is the first one with which the treatment has success. 67-Years old Maria Sofia Schafstadt, as it happens a member of the NSB (Dutch National Socialist movement, closely linked to the Nazis), is the first kidney patient in the world whose life is saved thanks to Kolff’s invention. On January 6, 1946, Kolff is gets his PhD at Groningen University on the subject of the artificial kidney.

The following years after the occupation time Kolff starts to develop a heart-lung machine that can take ovet these funtions when a patient is being operated on his heart. However in the after-war years in the Netherlands there are not sufficient funds for research.

This page is linked to Biographies 1939-1950: return to that page.