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Illinois students to replicate Kolff’s first artificial kidney machine

‘Original’ in Dutch museum

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

CHICAGO, Illinois – Students at a U.S. technology institute will replicate the world’s first dialysis machine. A team headed by local physician Dr. Willem Kolff at a Kampen, the Netherlands hospital, invented machine in 1943. The students however do not face similar difficulties as Kolff’s group, which was working under wartime conditions in an occupied country whith shortages of all kinds.

To kick off the building of a working model, the student group at IIT hosted Dr. Jacob van Noordwijk (85), Kolff’s principal assistant during the 1943 developments. Van Noordwijk and Herman Broers, director of the Kampen, the Netherlands, Kolff Museum, recently gave them a presentation on ‘The Early Days of Dialysis.’ The IIT team eventually will donate the finished model to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where it will be exhibited.

Facing shortages of supplies, Kolff (now 95 and living in the U.S.) and Van Noordwijk developed a basic machine that could be quickly assembled and sterilized. Their device was the first successful extra-corporeal medical instrument. It provided a successful technological reference point for subsequent development of dialysis and pioneered the field of artificial organs.

In 1943, Kolff and his team were forced to conceal their activities, because they used scarce materials that otherwise would have been requisitioned for the German war efforts. They employed a secret network to find patients who needed treatment and worked surreptitiously to help them.

Kolff’s drum

Drugs, bandages, rubber tubing and all other kinds of materials used in medicine had become scarce and could not be replaced, Van Noordwijk wrote in his book, ‘Dialysing for Life: The Development of the Artificial Kidney.’ Kolff and his group already were unique because they were the only ones working to invent a kidney dialysis machine while living in a war zone.

The original kidney dialysis machine was called ‘Kolff's rotating drum’ because it featured a wooden drum through which the patient’s blood was cleansed of metabolic waste. Hence, its name dialysis, from the Greek ‘to separate.’

The IIT students are building a full-scale working replica of the first dialysis machine, complete with wooden drum, a cellophane membrane through which the patient’s blood was fed, and a tub-like basin made of metal with a porcelain overlay.

Only two replicas of the original kidney dialysis machines exist: one in the Kampen museum and another in a museum in Leiden. The cellophane membrane remained a key part of dialysis machines into the 1970s, when it was replaced by hollow-fiber technology.