75 years of Innovators: William Kolff

Jan. 8, 2004
Dr. William Kolff used wooden barrels, cellophane sausage casings, orange-juice cans, and part of a water pump out of a Ford automobile to build the first artificial kidney, a dialysis machine that could cleanse the blood of those suffering renal disease.

In the 75 years since Machine Design began publication, here are some of the people who have changed the way we live.

William Kolff
The first biomedical engineer

He never patented the device, instead shipping them free to researchers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Today dialysis machines keep more than 300,00 Americans alive.

In the 1950s and working at the Cleveland Clinic, he turned his intellect to cardiovascular problems. He helped develop and refine the heart-lung machine, making open-heart surgery possible. This led him to work on an artificial heart that was ahead of its time and an intra-aortic balloon pump which today helps patients with heart disease. Later, at the University of Utah, he worked with Dr. Robert Jarvik in developing a series of mechanically efficient implantable hearts. In 1982, the Jarvik-7 was implanted in Barney Clark and it kept him alive for four months before he died from failures in other organs. Over his career he has also worked on artificial eyes, a portable dialysis machine, and even now in retirement, he is fine-tuning a wearable artificial lung. He is a member of the Inventor's Hall of Fame and was named one of the most important Americans of the 20th century by Life Magazine.

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