4 Dutch medical inventions and discoveries that changed the world

4 Dutch medical inventions and discoveries that changed the world

Nowadays, ask anyone about the Dutch healthcare system and they’ll either:

  1. Reply with something along the lines of “oh, the Netherlands has one of the best healthcare systems in the world!” or 
  2. Bring up the apparent love that the Dutch have for paracetamol as a cure-all. 

But, believe it or not, there is more to the Netherlands and its medical history than just these two points. For example, did you know that it was a microbiologist from Amsterdam who first coined the term “virus”? No? Well, let’s learn about all that and more and look at four significant medical inventions and discoveries that you didn’t know were Dutch. 

The discovery of blood cells

Thanks to the compound microscope (invented by the Dutch father-son team Hans and Zacharias Janssen), Jan Swammerdam, a biologist from Amsterdam, became the first person ever to observe red blood cells under a microscope in 1658. Following Swammerdam’s discovery, another Dutch microscopist and acquaintance of the biologist, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, described the size and shape of “red corpuscles” and rendered the first illustration of them in 1659. 

Swammerdam did a lot for the development of medicine and knowledge of the human body at the time, and made a number of anatomical and medical discoveries. He was a pioneer in neurophysiology and development biology, and, using a microscope, made huge discoveries about the anatomy of insects. 

The first blood bank in continental Europe

While Britain made significant advances in the development of blood banks and transfusion techniques in the 1920s - setting up the world first blood donor service in 1921 - continental Europe was a little slow to catch up. And so, it wasn’t until 1940 - when the Germans bombed The Hague - that Willem Johan Kolff (AKA Pim Kolff) organised the first blood bank in continental Europe. The blood bank was set up at the Zuidwal hospital, where eleven patients were given blood transfusions.

Kolff, born in Leiden, mainly focussed his work on developing a treatment for patients suffering from chronic kidney failure. He developed his first dialyzer (or artificial kidney) prototype in 1943, and successfully treated his first patient in 1945. 

The artificial heart

Kolff’s influence doesn’t stop there! After the war, he and his family moved to the US, where he spent 17 years working at the Cleveland Clinic. It was here that he, together with colleague Dr Tet Akutsu, successfully implanted an artificial heart in a dog in 1957. Following the surgery, the dog lived for 90 minutes.

After he left the clinic in 1967, Kolff went on to start the Division of Artificial Organs at the University of Utah. In the years he spent at the university, Kolff continued to pursue his work on the artificial heart, and over the years, hundreds of physicians and engineers continued to develop and improve Kolff’s artificial heart. After years of work, the first clinical use of an artificial heart designed for permanent implantation occurred in 1982

Because of his work during and after the war, Kolff became known as the Father of Artificial Organs. 

The concept of a virus

An apt discovery, considering the current times. In 1898, Amsterdam microbiologist and botanist Martinus Beijerinck, coined the term “virus” to indicate that the causative agent of a disease was non-bacterial. Beijerinck discovered the tobacco mosaic virus (formally known as the tobacco mosaic disease). 

Nowadays, thanks to his work in the 19th century, Beijerinck is regarded as one of the founders of virology. Alongside this significant discovery, Beijerinck also discovered nitrogen fixation and the phenomenon of bacterial sulfate reduction, and he invented the enrichment culture (a key method of studying microbes from the environment).  

Bonus: Willem Einthoven

Okay, so this one isn’t a discovery or an invention, but Willem Einthoven was a prominent Dutch physician and physiologist in the 19th century. In the 20th century, he developed the string galvanometer electrocardiograph - or, the first instrument which could be used to register the electrical activity of the heart. Before Einthoven, physicians knew the heartbeat produced electrical currents, but these currents couldn’t be measured or monitored by the technology that existed at the time. 

Einthoven’s invention was impractical and large (weighing about 270 kilograms!), but it worked, and while technological advances mean that modern-day electrocardiograms (known as EKGs or ECGs) are smaller and portable, much of the associated terminology still used today originated with Einthoven. His invention earned him the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine in 1924.

Can you think of any other Dutch medical discoveries or inventions? Which one on this list surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments below!

Victoria Séveno


Victoria Séveno

Victoria grew up in Amsterdam, before moving to the UK to study English and Related Literature at the University of York and completing her NCTJ course at the Press Association...

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