We know for certain modern dialysis finds its roots in the 20th century. In fact the history of dialysis starts with a young Dutch doctor by the name of Willem Kolff. Dr. Kolff, the father of dialysis, was the one responsible for developing the first artificial kidney back in 1943. This was known at the time as a dialyzer. His work on this amazing creation began during the 1930’s. The cause of his dedication for over a decade to this project was a patient who touched him deeply. During his time working at the University of Groningen Hospital, located in the Netherlands, he watched on with a helpless feeling as a man slowly died because of kidney failure. It was then when he decided he would find an answer to the problem of kidney failure. His vision was of a machine that would work like the kidneys in order to replace the normal kidney function.

Humble Beginnings 

father of modern dialysis, history of dialysis

Kolff began his search for information in the library at the university. He looked for all the information he could on how to get rid of the toxins in the body and he came across what would end up being his first and most important piece of information; an article on hemodialysis that was performed on animal test subjects back in 1913 by a doctor named John Abel. Dr. Abel was a professional that hailed from Johns Hopkins University. Once Kolff knew such a procedure was possible on animals, he set out to start work on the world’s first artificial kidney. He paused only during the Second World War when the Nazi occupation forced him to carry out his medical duties in a rural Dutch hospital. Even though research was hard due to the conditions, he never missed a chance to dig up something that could help him reach his goal. During the occupation he even used juice cans, skin from sausage and parts from a washing machine to help form a device that would take toxins out of the blood. Doing this work during this time put him in great personal risk at the hands of the Nazi’s but he was a man possessed. He finally put together his first prototype in 1943. He used it over the next few years to treat 16 people with failing kidneys but had very little success. Then in 1945 came a major breakthrough, a woman who was in a coma induced by kidney failure became conscience after using the crude machine for 11 hours straight. She made a full recovery and died many years later of an unrelated illness.

A Decade of Adversity and Improvements

For the next ten years, and after a few tweaks, Kolff’s machine was used as a standard piece of dialysis equipment. In 1954 Kolff brought his invention to Boston’s Peter Brent Brigham Hospital where a new model was developed. This one was made of stainless steel and helped during the first ever kidney transplant. This new machine was used heavily on patients during the Korean War. In fact, it was credited with saving the lives of many American soldiers. By the late 1950’s it was seen as a crucial piece in helping save the lives of people who had chronic and acute kidney problems. At first there were very few doctors who believed dialysis could be a permanent treatment to those with failing kidneys; they did not believe a man-made machine could actually replace the human kidney on a long term basis. Second of all, they felt that it would be too difficult to find enough vessels to use in order to get access to a person’s blood since treatment would damage too many arteries and veins. This was a valid concern but a new answer came from a young medical professor by the name of Doctor Belding Scribner who worked out of the University of Washington. His idea was to connect the person to the dialysis machine with a set of plastic tubing. One would go into the vein and another into the artery. Once treatment was over, the access to the system would be kept opened by keeping the tubes connected to the body in a U shaped fashion. This way there would be no need to use different sites each time and it allowed for longer term treatment. This was named the Scribner Shunt and took away the need to put in new incisions each time someone went through dialysis. This breakthrough in the history of dialysis is not used anymore due to new and better advances but it allowed dialysis to take a huge step towards the modern miracle it is today.

Into the Modern Age

In the year 1962 the first center for dialysis patients was opened for outpatient dialysis treatment. From there came further developments in the field of dialysis. One of the most remarkable is the home dialyzer, a small machine that can be used at home by the patient and their family. This made life easier for many people suffering from kidney issues that required regular dialysis. As for Dr. Kolff, the father of dialysis, he went on to become even more of a success as a biomedical engineer, a position which allowed him to have a strong hand in the development of the artificial heart and the heart and lung machine that has save thousands of lives. He is now in his 90’s and is still working. His latest project is an artificial ear and eye. All of this out of his passion for saving people who had failing kidneys.