publication date: Oct. 5, 2018
Philip DiSaia, former head of Gynecologic Oncology Group, dies at 81
By Krishnansu Tewari
The grandson of Italian immigrants, Philip John DiSaia was born on Aug. 14, 1937 in Providence, Rhode Island. He earned his Bachelor’s in Science at Brown University and his MD at Tufts University.
Upon the advice of his mentor in medical school, DiSaia obtained two years of general surgery training, followed by residency in obstetrics & gynecology at Yale University where he met Edward Quilligan, creator of the fetal heart rate monitor.
During residency, DiSaia published the paper that first brought to light the teratogenic effects of warfarin on the human fetus.
He next fulfilled his commitment to serve in the U.S. Navy and then successfully competed for a grant through the American Cancer Society, which funded his fellowship in gynecologic oncology under the tutelage of Felix Noah Rutledge at MD Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston.
During this period, he would form long-lasting bonds with his co-fellow, William Creasman. In 1976, DiSaia was recruited following a national search for a chair for the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of California, Irvine.
Accompanied by Quilligan, DiSaia sought to establish a traditional academic department at UC Irvine and would ultimately distinguish the Department of OB/GYN as one of the preeminent institutions dedicated to women’s health.
In addition to a nationally recognized residency program and robust volunteer clinical faculty comprised of community OB/GYNs, the department flourished under his leadership with the establishment of four clinically directed and research-driven Divisions in Gynecologic Oncology, Maternal-Fetal Medicine, Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, and Urogynecology.
Embedded in each division was a highly sought after fellowship training program.
DiSaia established the first four-year program in GYN Oncology, created a direct corridor for translational research collaboration with the basic scientists in UCI’s School of Biological Sciences, and was the first to obtain NIH funding through a T32 grant to fund the two research years of the fellowship.
DiSaia has served as president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology and president of the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology.
During his four consecutive terms as group presiding chair of the NCI’s Gynecologic Oncology Group, DiSaia spearheaded the practice-changing clinical trials that established the role for adjuvant radiotherapy for early stage high-risk endometrial cancer, chemotherapy for advanced/recurrent endometrial cancer, anti-angiogenesis therapy and intraperitoneal chemotherapy for newly diagnosed advanced ovarian cancer, chemoradiation for locally advanced cervical cancer, anti-angiogenesis therapy for recurrent/metastatic cervical cancer, and sentinel lymphatic mapping for early stage vulvar cancer.
At UC Irvine, his research endeavors have had as their focus the immunology of tumor biology, the safety of estrogen replacement therapy among breast and endometrial cancer survivors, and the development of less disfiguring surgical approaches for vulvar cancer.
DiSaia’s and Creasman’s, Clinical Gynecologic Oncology, is the most widely read textbook in the subspecialty and is currently in its 9th edition and has been translated into several languages.
DiSaia is the recipient of the University of California Gold Medal and a Certificate of Commemoration from the United States Senate.
At the turn of the millennium, DiSaia was granted an audience with Pope John Paul II, and shortly thereafter was granted an Honorary Degree from the University of Brescia in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy.
DiSaia’s legacy lives in the hearts of the numerous residents and fellows he has trained over the past 42 years at UC Irvine.
During this period, he treated thousands of women who struggled with gynecologic malignancies.
He loved old medical tomes, the New England Patriots, and Italian wines. DiSaia passed away peacefully at his home on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. He is survived by his loving wife, Patti DiSaia, four sons and their wives, and numerous grandchildren.
The author is the director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of California, Irvine