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Home - Medicine and Medical History - Willem Johan (Pim) Kolff (February 14, 1911 – February 11, 2009)

Willem Johan (Pim) Kolff (February 14, 1911 – February 11, 2009)

Know what’s hardcore? Being an active resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, that’s hardcore. If, by the by, during that time you also start the first blood bank in Europe, build the first dialysis machine from car parts and juice cans, and hide a Jewish colleague and his son from SS officers, you’re ultra hardcore.

Pim Kolff
Pim Kolff

Kolff was born in 1911 into a wealthy family in Leiden, Netherlands. He was barely 19 when he entered Leiden University, and 23 when he graduated as a medical apprentice. He received his MD six months later and, prompted by an experience with a patient with kidney failure, began experimenting with hemodialysis.

During the war, angered over the dismissal of a colleague for being Jewish, he resigned and moved to Kampen to take a position as head of Internal Medicine. He also hid his former colleague and his son during this time.

His first thoroughly successful application happened in the early months of 1945, weeks before the end of the war. Subsequently, he finished his PhD thesis in early 1946. Word of his hemodialysis machine spread and he began a correspondence with various physicians in the United States, leading to his leaving for the US for employment in 1950.

After a few months working at the Cleveland Clinic, building a heart-lung machine to keep patients alive during thoracic surgery, he was contacted by NYC real estate mogul and philanthropist David Rose to develop a newer version of the artificial kidney. This was, more or less, the birth of modern dialysis and the begin of a new era of treatments and kidney patient quality of life.

Kolff was a stern but fair boss and colleague who didn’t mind stepping back and letting his team take the credit or limelight. After he worked with a group of physicians to develop the first artificial heart, he stayed behind the scenes and engineered events to push his colleague Jarvik, a young and energetic physician, as the mastermind in front of the press.

He died on Feb 11, 2009, in Newton Square, PA, just four days shy of his 98th birthday. Three years later, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Center, honored him for his role during WWII as “Righteous Among the Nations.”