University of Washington researchers improve kidney dialysis technology, which makes it practical, during 1960.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2094

In 1960, researchers at the University of Washington invent several important improvements to kidney dialysis equipment and technology that result in prolonging the lives of tens of thousands of patients whose kidneys have failed.

Although a machine substituting for kidneys, which cleansed the blood as kidneys do, had been invented in 1939, the process was impractical. Likewise, kidney transplants were still highly experimental. By inventing the Scribner Cannula, and by improving the efficiency of the dialysis machine and reducing its size, patients who would otherwise die of uremia could be kept alive.

A major obstacle to ongoing dialysis had been that patients' veins and arteries could not withstand the frequent abuse of intravenous punctures. Dr. Belding Scribner, a nephrologist (kidney specialist), devised a shunt or cannula, a mechanical extension of blood vessels made of Teflon to which equipment could be connected. The first test of the cannula was on Boeing machinist Clyde Shields without prior testing on animals (a practice that would be impossible under today's [2005] guidelines).

Dr. Albert Babb, a professor of nuclear engineering, and Wayne Quinton, a biomedical technician and instrument builder, teamed up with Scribner to reduce the size of dialysis equipment by developing an automatic system that mixed tap water with the dialysis concentrate. A single unit could then service five beds simultaneously. The team also eliminated the need for a separate blood pump, relying instead on the patient's own bloodstream.

The need for dialysis was so acute and the treatment so expensive that an anonymous committee was empanelled to decide which patients would receive dialysis, which cost $10,000 a year. The first home dialysis patient was high school student Caroline Helm in 1965. The committee had rejected her for in-hospital treatment.

As was common practice, no patents were taken out on these improvements, thereby allowing them to be used quickly and economically throughout the world.


Adam Woog, Sexless Oysters and Self-Tipping Hats: 100 Years of Inventions in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1991), 112-116.

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