Dr. Willem J. Kolff is not an imposing figure, slightly stooped at age 93, his hair and beard pure white, his speech punctuated by tiny pauses. But he's a giant in the world of medicine and bioengineering.

And the packed house at the "grand round" lecture Wednesday morning indicated medical students and staff at the University of Utah knew how lucky they were to have the rare opportunity to hear the inventor of dialysis and pioneer of artificial organs discuss his life's work.

It was a reunion of sorts for Kolff, who made the trip to Utah from his retirement home in Pennsylvania. The return to the U., where he'd worked and played for many years, was prompted by Dr. Ted Stanley's realization that the medical staffers who provide care might be too young to fully understand the medical center's colorful history. Kolff sits center stage in some of the center's prouder moments.

Kolff came to the U. from the Cleveland Clinic in 1967 to head up an artificial organ program that was later most noted for the Jarvik-7 artificial heart, implanted in Seattle dentist Barney Clark in 1982. By the time he arrived at the U. back then, he'd already worked on heart-lung bypass and cardiac assist devices and more.

Kolff was a young doctor in World War II Netherlands when he created a desk-sized artificial kidney that relied on gravity and a rotating drum to clean impurities from blood, the forerunner to current dialysis machines. His interest had been sparked because as a volunteer assistant at a hospital, he'd been assigned a young man who "died slowly and miserably of renal failure."

Wednesday, he laid some of the earlier technology out on the table and showed it off, from cellophane tubing to a black vest housing a "wearable oxygenator" (artificial lung), with a smaller version for women. He spoke of early patients who were willing to be part of the the experiments and of the often-odd equipment they used for what would be cutting-edge medicine — the artificial kidney, for instance, used a water pump from an early Ford auto.

Eventually, Kolff's work would include bits of the artificial heart, artificial sight, artificial kidneys and placentas and more.

His humor and wit both intact, Kolff lamented at one point that he lost some of the money that had been funding his projects in order to help fund something else with promise: "Cold fusion." The audience cracked up.

But Kolff got his biggest laugh when someone asked if he was saddened or surprised that he'd never received the Nobel Prize.

"I'm not against it," he quipped.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com