Kidneys keep our blood clean. If they stop working, toxins accumulate in the blood and can lead to death. Kidney dialysis machines, known as artificial kidneys, can replace kidney function. They remove toxins before pumping clean blood back into the body.
The first artificial kidney machine was developed by Willem Kolff in 1943. He had limited materials during wartime, so he used cellophane sausage wrapping attached to a wooden rotating drum. The first 15 people hooked up to the machine died. However, drum dialysers saved many lives. Kolff improved his machine and pioneered other devices.
The 1950s and 1960s saw new designs for dialysis machines. Some were for use in the home as well as hospital. Home dialysis was more convenient for patients and could be carried out more frequently, so it improved patient health. However, home dialysis machines were expensive and complex to use and clean.
In the 1950s people thought machines could not manage long-term kidney failure. Long-term dialysis damaged patients’ veins and arteries. This made it difficult for them to use dialysis machines. In 1960, American doctor Belding Scribner invented the Teflon shunt. Patients now had a permanent connector fitted to their arm that linked them to a dialysis machine without the blood clotting. This gave hope to patients waiting for an organ transplant.
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J Stanton, ‘The cost of living: kidney dialysis, rationing and health economics in Britain, 1965-1996’, Social science and medicine, 49 (1999), pp 1169-1182
S Peitzman, Dropsy, dialysis, transplant: a short history of failing kidneys (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)
J Stewart Cameron, History of the treatment of renal failure by dialysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
P Heiney, The Nuts and Bolts of Life: Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Kidney Machine, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2003)
J van Noordwijk, Dialysing for life: the development of the artificial kidney (Dordrecht; London Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001
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