by George Taniwaki

The year 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the invention of hemodialysis, a life saving procedure to removing waste product from the blood of people with chronic kidney disease.

An experiment using animals is described in the May 1913 issue of Trans Assoc Amer Phys. The work was done by three doctors, John Abel, L.G. Rowntree, and B.B. Turner, all of Johns Hopkins Medical School.


A screenshot from the article describing the invention of hemodialysis. Image from Google books

From the archives of Scientific American Sept 1913 comes a description of the experiment. The article contains this quote from the Times of London:

A demonstration which excited great interest was that of Prof. [John Jacob] Abel of Baltimore. Prof. Abel presented a new and ingenious method of removing substances from the circulating blood, which can hardly fail to be of benefit in the study of some of the most complex problems. By means of a glass tube tied into the main artery of an anesthetized animal the blood is conducted through numerous celloidin tubes before being returned to the veins through a second glass tube. All diffusible substances circulating in the blood pass through the intervening layer of celloidin. In this way Prof. Abel has constructed what is practically an artificial kidney.

In their experiment Dr. Abel and his colleagues use a dialysis membrane made of celloidin. Celloidin is an early plastic made from nitrocellulose (cotton or wood pulp reacted with nitric acid). It was translucent and water-repellent. Films or tubes made from celloidin were water permeable, which made them good osmotic filters. However, celloidin was highly flammable and dangerous to work with.

Today, dialysis membrane tubing is made from rayon fiber (cellulose reacted with carbon disulfide and mixed with glycerin, then extruded through a spinneret to form a thread) or cellophane film (chemically similar to rayon, except that it is extruded through a slit to form a thin sheet).