Willem Kolff, former University of Utah medical pioneer, dead at 97

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Willem Johan Kolff, a former University of Utah professor and pioneer in the fields of kidney dialysis and artificial organs, has died at the age of 97.

Kolff's son Jack said he died of natural causes Wednesday at a Philadelphia care center.

Kolff was part of a team of surgeons who made worldwide headlines in 1982 by implanting an artificial heart into Seattle dentist Barney Clark at University Hospital. Clark lived for four months, then died with the heart still functioning.

In 2002, Kolff received the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, one of the highest honors in American medicine, for his work on kidney dialysis. The nominating committee noted his developments "changed kidney failure from a fatal to a treatable disease, prolonging the useful lives of millions of patients."

U. President Michael Young said in a statement that Kolff's legacy lives on in his former colleagues and students -- such as mechanical engineer and robotics leader Stephen Jacobsen, Donald Olsen, Joe Andrade and the late Bill Dobelle -- who have helped make Utah a leader in the development of new biomedical technologies.

"Dr. Kolff was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word," Young said. "His ground-breaking work on the artificial kidney in the 1940s made him a household name and a hero to millions of people around the world who benefited from this life-saving technology."

Added Andrade, a semi-retired professor of bioengineering now working to establish The Leonardo science and culture center: "He was setting up infrastructure and doing planning, but more importantly it was attracting people. People from all over the planet were descending on Salt Lake City to work with Kolff."

Kolff's contributions go far beyond dialysis and the artificial heart, colleagues say. His insights inspired by sausage casings led to his invention of membrane blood oxygenator, a device used in most open heart surgeries, said Olsen, a one-time Nevada scholar of veterinarian science Kolff recruited to Utah as a consultant.

"He was an innovator who would see technologies developing in ancillary fields and bring it in with modifications into artificial organs. It was amazing how fast he could do that," said Olsen, now director of the Utah Artificial Heart Institute.

"I would expand Dr. Kolff's influence in the overall field far beyond the confines of the University of Utah. .... He was on the cutting edge of those technologies and amassed a group of us with him. He was such a driven man that he drove us to excellence."

But Kolff's work did not always receive the recognition it deserved, some of his colleagues argued. Pfizer's Lipitor ads featuring U. colleague Robert Jarvik, who claimed to be the inventor of the artificial heart, drew objections from Olsen, Kolff's son Jack and other researchers who felt Kolff, if anyone, deserved the title. Kolff was already recognized as the inventor of the first working artificial kidney in 1957 when he began work on a heart with a series of researchers.

Pfizer's corporate counsel initially defended the ad, saying its depiction was "consistent with his [Jarvik's] representation throughout the scientific community as inventor of the first successful artificial heart for humans." But the ad was later altered to refer to Jarvik as "inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart."

Time, said Jack Kolff, helped his father put the limited public recognition of his achievements behind him.

"The glass is still half full," the younger Kolff said an interview in spring 2008. "That is his attitude."