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U’s Kolff Wins One of Engineering’s Top Honors

February 19, 2003 — Willem Kolff, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Utah, has been awarded one of the engineering profession’s highest honors and a $500,000 cash prize for his work in developing artificial organs.

Kolff is living in a retirement community in Pennsylvania and is not available for interviews. However, below is a localized copy of a news release issued by the National Academy of Engineering on the honors awarded to Kolff and other engineers.

Please note this is the second major honor for Kolff in the past five months. In September 2002, Kolff and Belding Scribner, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Washington, were honored with the 2002 Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research. They shared that prize for their development of kidney dialysis, which changed kidney failure from a fatal to treatable disease.

Kollf, M.D., Ph.D., is a distinguished professor emeritus of internal medicine, surgery and bioengineering.

Lee Siegel, science news specialist
University of Utah Public Relations
(801) 581-8993


WASHINGTON – The engineering profession’s highest honors for 2003, presented by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), recognize two technological achievements that have affected millions of people’s lives throughout the world – the Global Positioning System (GPS) and artificial organs.

WILLEM J. KOLFF will receive the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize – also a $500,000 award recognizing outstanding achievement in engineering – this year in bioengineering – for his pioneering work on artificial organs.

IVAN A. GETTING and BRADFORD W. PARKINSON will share the distinguished Charles Stark Draper Prize – a $500,000 annual award that honors engineers whose accomplishments have significantly impacted society – for their individual efforts toward the development of GPS.

The prizes were to be presented at a dinner in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 18.


At least 1.2 million people are alive today thanks to the invention of kidney dialysis. This first demonstration that a man-made device could routinely replace the function of a natural organ was one of the great contributions of engineering to clinical medicine. The paradigm was quickly applied to other organs and led the modern era of “substitutive medicine.”

“The lives of over 20 million people are sustained, or significantly improved, by organ replacement technology,” said Leo J. Thomas, retired executive vice president of Eastman Kodak Co. and chair of the Russ Prize selection committee. “A key component is artificial organs, and Dr. Kolff has had a role in practically all of them. He is truly the father of this field.”

WILLEM J. KOLFF 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. Even Kolff’s early device was able to reverse such symptoms in patients. 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. At 91, Kolff lives in a retirement home where he is fine-tuning his next invention – the wearable artificial lung.

The Draper Prize was established in 1988 at the request of The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., Cambridge, Mass., to honor the memory of “Doc” Draper, the “father of inertial navigation,” and to increase public understanding of the contributions of engineering and technology. The prize is awarded annually.


GPS was initially developed for the guidance, navigation, and control of military aircraft, missiles, and satellites in space, as well as to aid people on the ground. Now it has become commonplace in many everyday applications and has fundamentally changed navigation for various modes of transportation through its capability to give precise positioning coordinates and very accurate real time. GPS is currently part of such technologies as weapons and air traffic control systems, and is used in ships, trucks, and automobiles. It is increasingly being employed in areas of health and welfare, as well as in emergency situations.

“Many of engineering’s great achievements become so much a part of our lives that they are taken for granted. I think that, without question, the Global Positioning System is destined for this distinction,” said Wm. A. Wulf, president, National Academy of Engineering. “It is an achievement that deservedly joins the ranks of previous Draper Prize honors, such as the semiconductor microchip, the jet engine, satellite technology, fiber optics, and the Internet.”

IVAN A. GETTING is president emeritus of The Aerospace Corp. In the 1950s he envisioned a system that would use satellite transmitters to pinpoint with extreme accuracy locations anywhere on Earth. After it was shown that GPS could work, Getting became a tireless advocate for making sure the complex system was actually built.

BRADFORD W. PARKINSON was Department of Defense program director for the original definition of the GPS system architecture, as well as for its engineering, development, demonstration, and implementation. He continues to work on GPS at Stanford University, further honing its accuracy and using it to control such things as helicopters, farm tractors, and spacecraft.

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 recognizes outstanding achievement in an engineering field, currently bioengineering, that is of critical importance and that contributes to the advancement of science and engineering. The achievement must improve a person’s quality of life and have widespread application or use. The prize is presented biennially.

The National Academy of Engineering is an independent, nonprofit institution. Its members consist of the nation’s premier engineers, who are elected by their peers for their seminal contributions to engineering. As such, the academy provides leadership and guidance to government on the application of engineering resources to social, economic, and security problems. Established in 1964, NAE operates under the congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.

For additional information about either prize, contact Leila Rao, NAE awards administrator, at (202) 334-1237 or, or Randy Atkins, NAE media relations officer at (202) 334-1508 or Visit the NAE Web site at http://WWW.NAE.EDU.

This news release and photos of the recipients are available on the Web at http://NATIONAL-ACADEMIES.ORG