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Ohio Today

He's a lifesaver
The breakthroughs of 2003 Russ Prize winner Willem Kolff -- known as the father of artificial organs -- have prolonged the lives of some 20 million people. And at 92, he's still at it.

Dr. Willem Kolff

Watch and listen as 2003 Russ Prize Willem Kolff, known as the "Father of Artificial Organs," explains the wearable artificial lung.

Quicktime: Lo-Res | Hi-Res

By Jennifer Kirksey Smith

Standing at a podium at the National Press Club in February to accept the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, 92-year-old Dr. Willem Kolff opens his off-white jacket to reveal his latest project.

"The Russ Prize," he says, modeling what resembles a police officer's bulletproof vest, "will make it possible to follow through on this very wearable artificial lung."

Known as the father of artificial organs, Kolff -- through his many inventions -- has been credited with extending more than 20 million lives. His contributions to the field of medicine have included the heart-lung machine, the artificial heart (made famous by its first human recipient, Barney Clark), the kidney dialysis machine, the artificial eye, the artificial ear and the intra-aortic balloon pump heart assist device.

Today, Kolff lives in a one-room studio apartment at a Pennsylvania retirement home. He uses the facility's arts and crafts room for his research.

The Russes' vision

Fritz Russ, BSEE '42, and his wife, Dolores, had a vision when they established the Russ Prize in 1999 through a $5.8 million endowment at Ohio University. A capstone to Fritz Russ' remarkable career in electrical engineering and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, the Russ Prize is intended to recognize engineering achievements that improve the human condition. It is sponsored by Ohio University and the National Academy of Engineering.

A pioneer in the field, Fritz Russ helped lead breakthroughs in television technology, atomic weapons testing systems, engine controls, aircraft weaponry, space flight and medical technology. Today, the Russes split their time between Dayton, Ohio, and Naples, Fla.

"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."

The first of Kolff's remarkable accomplishments -- the first practical artificial kidney -- came during World War II in Nazi-occupied Holland, his homeland. He used, among other materials, sausage casings and part of a Ford water pump scrounged from a local factory. Motivating Kolff was 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," he says. "I realized if I could remove 22 cc's of urea from him each day, then I could save his life."

In September 1945, Kolff's device saved its first patient.

In 1950, Kolff and his family emigrated from Holland to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became head of the department of artificial organs and professor of clinical investigation at the Cleveland Clinic. There he began work on an artificial heart and, in 1957, implanted the first totally artificial heart in the chest of an animal.

Kolff joined the University of Utah as director of its Institute for Biomedical Engineering and artificial organs division 10 years later. Under his leadership, the university developed one of the world's leading artificial organ research centers.

Kolff isn't content to stop now -- not when so many lives depend on medical research.

He will use the $500,000 Russ Prize -- established through a multimillion-dollar Ohio University endowment created by Fritz and Dolores Russ -- to assist in developing the wearable artificial lung, a project he has financed mostly on his own, as well as other artificial organs. He also plans to use the money to recognize dialysis nurses and to help create a holding ward where individuals can receive an artificial heart or a cardiac assist device while awaiting organ transplants.

Kolff appreciates the more than 100 awards he's received, but he doesn't bask in the recognition they provide.

"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."

Jennifer Kirksey Smith is a writer for University Communications and Marketing

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