Great Breakthroughs in Science: Who Invented the Artificial Heart?

Great controversy has surround the title of inventor of the first artificial heart. However, in actuality, the artificial heart is the progeny of many great medical minds working together to achieve one vision. It could be said that each of these great men is a first, for each one made a unique contribution that together made a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the most important contributors to this work was Dr. Willem Kolff, born February 14, 1911, in the Netherlands. Following in the footsteps of his father, he decided to become a doctor. He studied medicine at the University of Leiden, where he graduated with his medical degree in 1938. After graduation, he did postgraduate work at the University of Groningen, where he received a Ph.D. cum laude in medicine in 1946.

Kolff established the first blood bank in Europe in 1940 in the town of Kampen where he had been practicing medicine. It was during these years that Kolff developed and used the first lifesaving hemodialysis treatment in 1945. So before ever attaining his Ph.D., Kolff was an inventor of life-saving medical technology.

With funding for medical research not a top priority in the post-war Netherlands, Dr. Kolff decided to join the Cleveland Clinic in 1950, where he became the Department Head of Artificial organs. It was at Cleveland Clinic that he first began his work on the artificial heart. By 1957, his research had progressed to the point that animal implants of the artificial heart were being done.

Dr. Kolff moved to the University of Utah in 1967 and became head of the institute of Biomedical Engineering. While Kolff worked on a number of artificial organs during his tenure at the University, it was here that the first artificial heart for human use was developed using Dr. Kolff’s principles. Dr. Robert Jarvik developed the device, whose first recipient was the courageous Dr. Barney Clark, a California dentist.

Dr. Kolff retired in 1986 at the age of 75. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honorary Doctorate degrees. He has been called the father of artificial organs as well as the father of the artificial kidney. He has also been called one of the most important physicians of the twentieth century.