A Brief History of Dialysis

Perhaps even thousands of years ago, healers searched for solutions to help those with failing kidneys, as there were no dialysis technicians in those days. It wasn’t until the 20th century that researchers found a way to extend the lives of those afflicted with acute or chronic kidney problems – dialysis.

Dialysis (or hemodialysis) removes the waste products, water and other minerals from the blood when the kidneys can no longer accomplish this. There are two types of dialysis, Hemodialysis and Peritoneal dialysis. With Hemodialysis, the treatment is using a machine that cleans the blood with an artificial membrane outside of the body. With Peritoneal dialysis, the blood is cleaned using a membrane inside of the patient’s body. Both procedures boast the same historical background.

Graham Invents a Way to Purify Blood

Thomas Graham, a chemist working at Glasgow University in Scotland, was a key person in developing the scientific process of purifying the blood of those with renal failure. In 1854, after much study, he discovered the principles of filtering blood to remove toxins.

To come to his conclusions, Graham had taken a bell-shaped vessel filled with urine, and covered the end with a membrane from an ox-bladder, filtering the urine through the container into another filled with distilled water. Boiling away the distilled water showed the residue of waste materials, proving to be fact what once was theory.

Grahams experiments proved that it was indeed possible to filter out poisons from liquids. Graham along with another gentleman named Richard Bright then proposed this as a treatment for renal failure, calling it dialysis.

Of course, they knew there was much more to develop before it was to be used on patients and they predicted it would be 60 years before a patient was treated using this system. However, Thomas Graham made gigantic steps forward in creating a process that saved many lives, and saves many lives now using the assistance of dialysis technicians trained in every aspect of this procedure.

John Abel Experimented with a Dog

Basing his experiments on those of Thomas Graham, John Abel, a renowned pharmacologist, attempted to use a dog to perfect the treatment of dialysis. In 1913, he and two others (Rowntree and Turner) built a machine using a special membrane and pumped the animal’s blood through it, filtering out the waste products.

However, the problem they ran into was that the blood kept clotting. In 1914, at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, Abel finally was able to develop an efficient dialysis system. Using a solution from leech heads as an anticoagulant, he was able to effectively run the dialysis process.

The First Treatment by Hass

In 1924 at the German University of Giessen, a gentleman by the name of Hass did the first hemodialysis treatment on a human being. You could likely call him the very first dialysis technician. Hess used a tubular device and hirudin, the natural chemical produced by medicinal leeches, for an anticoagulant to successfully administer this procedure. (Today, dialysis technicians use a much more effective anticoagulant to keep the patient’s blood from clotting.)

Dr. Willem Kolff Saves a Patient

Dr. Willem Kolff was inspired to help those dying of renal failure when he witnessed someone dying of this disease. He then discovered the writings of John Abel in a university library. He went on to construct the first truly effective dialysis apparatus between 1943 and 1945. His first patient was so ill, she was in a coma, but regained consciousness after eleven hours of treatment.

After World War II, Kolff gave the few dialysis machines he had built to doctors who could then use them to learn to administer the procedure to their patients. Kolff also had blueprints of his dialysis apparatus given to a hospital in Boston, and finally the Kolff-Brigham Dialysis Machine was manufactured in quantity. These stainless steel machines were used mainly for those who had acute kidney failure, and not seen (at the time) as a solution for those who had chronic kidney disease.

Improvements by Scribner

Later, Dr. Belding H. Scribner made key improvements of working parts of the dialysis machines already in use. The most important development he made was a Teflon shunt, rather than the glass one used previously, that connected tubes outside of the body, allowing blood to move from the tube in the artery back into the vein.

Throughout the centuries, many have taken part in the development of dialysis as a science and an effective life-saving procedure. It behooves a dialysis technician to learn of this history and honor the ones who made it possible.

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