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  • The Russ Prize

  • Russ College of Engineering and Technology

  • National Academy of Engineering


  • February 18, 2003
    Father of artificial organs receives Russ Prize
    By Jennifer Kirksey Smith

    The National Academy of Engineering today named Willem J. Kolff the 2003 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize recipient at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Known as the father of artificial organs, Kolff will receive $500,000 in recognition of his pioneering work.

    Artifical Kidney: 1947Kolff engineered the first dialysis machine - or, as he prefers to call it, the artificial kidney - out of sausage casings and part of a Ford automobile water pump during World War II while in Nazi-occupied Holland. He was driven by the experience of seeing a young man suffer through the agony of kidney failure as his body gradually lost the ability to filter out waste.

    "My first patient at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands was a 22-year-old boy who died from renal kidney failure," Kolff says. "I realized if I could remove 22 CCs of urea from him each day then I could save his life."

    Kolff's early device was able to reverse such symptoms in patients. The first artificial kidney patient was in Kampen in 1943.

    Since then, he has added much to his resume, including: the heart-lung machine, the intra-aortic balloon pump heart assist device, the artificial eye, and the artificial heart made famous by its first human recipient Barney Clark.

    "I try to define what the problem is ... my solutions are always aimed at prolonging life and happiness," he says. "If I cannot restore someone to a happy life, then I should not do it. If you think that it can be done, then you try until you do it."

    Leo Thomas, retired executive vice president of Eastman Kodak Co. and chair of the Russ Prize selection committee, commended Kolff's work with artificial organs.

    "Dr. Kolff has had a role in practically all of them. He is truly the father of this field," Thomas says.

    Kolff appreciates the many awards he has received, but instead of basking in the recognition, he uses them as motivation.

    "They give me the encouragement to go on," he says. "You don't sit and rest on your laurels ... you see what you can do."

    He plans to use the award money to finance the development of artificial organs where they are needed, recognize dialysis nurses and work with non-profit organizations for scholarship and treatment through artificial organs.

    At 92, Kolff lives in a retirement home in Newton Square, Pa., where he is fine-tuning his next invention - the wearable artificial lung - with Impella, Membrana and Stephen Topaz laboratories.

    The Russ Prize was established in 1999 through a multimillion-dollar endowment to Ohio University from Fritz Russ, a 1942 engineering graduate, and his wife, Dolores.

    It is awarded biennially to recognize outstanding achievement in engineering of critical importance that contributes to the advancement of science and engineering and improves a person's quality of life.

    Jennifer Kirksey Smith is a media specialist for University Communications and Marketing


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