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The kidneys are fist-sized organs that are shaped like beans. There are two, and each is located just below the rib cage toward the middle of the back. Though fairly small, the kidneys are powerful workhorses. Each day the kidneys filter about 200 quarts of blood to remove the impurities. These impurities, around 2 quarts, are then excreted in the urine. In addition to filtering out waste materials and excess water, the kidneys also process vital chemicals, like potassium and sodium, and send back them back to the body in appropriate amounts. This complicated filtering process takes place within nephrons, tiny units that contain specialized blood vessels. Each kidney contains about one million nephrons and, when the nephrons lose their ability to filter blood, the result is what we call kidney failure. Early stages of kidney failure may produce lethargy, shortness of breath, and weakness. Swelling may occur, as the body loses its ability to eliminate excess water. As the disease progresses more serious symptoms set in. The buildup of potassium may cause fatal heart rhythms. The excess waste materials circulating in the blood begin to affect all the major organs, resulting in congestive heart failure, decreased mental awareness, and severe anemia. Eventually the unprocessed toxins overwhelm the body and the patient falls into a coma. Without immediate intervention, through hemodialysis, the patient cannot survive.
True genius finds a way. Kolff developed his first artificial kidney while Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany. Kolff moved to the small town of Kampen following the German invasion, and went to work at the municipal hospital. These were dangerous times and Kolff was right in the middle of it. He became a central figure in the local resistance, using his medical expertise to help townspeople avoid arrest by the German forces. He would simulate various diseases on resistors and Jews, and thus helped over 800 people avoid arrest. Meanwhile, he continued his research on an artificial kidney. Since he had few supplies with which to work, Kolff fashioned a device using wooden barrels, cellophane tubes, and laundry tubs. The tubing, which passed the blood back and forth between the patient and the device, wound around the drum and ran through its hollow shaft. A small motor rotated the drum, so that the blood was filtered, as it was run through a cleansing saline solution that filled the tub. But, this was no sure thing. Fifteen of his first sixteen patients died after no more than a few days; the one patient who survived did so for reasons unrelated to his kidneys. Finally, with the treatment of his seventeenth patient, Kolff found success. A 67-year-old woman, facing certain death, recovered after being treated with Kolff's artificial kidney. This forever changed the treatment of kidney failure. Following the Second World War, Kolff gave away several of his artificial kidneys to clinicians throughout the world, so the treatment of kidney failure could become available to all. This was the humble beginning of modern day hemodialysis.
Though Robert Jarvik is closely associated with the creation of the artificial heart (the Jarvik 7), Kolff's role is often overlooked. It was Kolff who hired Jarvik, while directing the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah, to do research on the artificial heart. And, it was Kolff who supervised the first transplant of an artificial heart into a patient in 1982 - Barney Clark, who lived for an additional 112 days before succumbing to pneumonia.
Introduction by Tim Anderson
Table of ContentsIntroduction
Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Experiment or Research
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Key Contributing Scientists
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject
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Stanford University overview of Kolff and his work:
Academy of Achievement interview with Kolff:
Doctors and discoveries, by Simmons, discusses Kolff's research:
Click the image to view Willem Kolff's Lasker Foundation interview
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The Science Behind the Discovery
Tracy, Kathleen. Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Dialysis Machine (Unlocking the Secrets of Science) (Ages 9-12) Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2002.
Links to Information on the Science