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Professor Emeritus Philip J. DiSaia, MD (1937-2018)

By Krishansu S. Tewari, MD

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Philip John DiSaia was born on Aug. 14, 1937 in Providence, Rhode Island. He earned his bachelor’s degree 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 and gynecology at Yale University where he met Edward J. Quilligan, MD, developer of the fetal heart rate monitor.

During his Yale residency, DiSaia published the paper that first brought to light the teratogenic effects of warfarin on the human fetus. He next fulfilled his military service commitment in the U.S. Navy, 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, MD, at MD Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston, Texas. During this period he would form long-lasting bonds with his co-fellow, William T. Creasman, MD.

In 1976, after a national search, DiSaia was recruited by the University of California, Irvine to be chair of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology. Accompanied by Quilligan, DiSaia sought to establish a traditional academic department and ultimately distinguished the department as one of the preeminent U.S. institutions dedicated to women’s health. In addition to building a nationally recognized residency program and robust volunteer clinical faculty — comprised of community ob/gyn(s) — the department flourished under his leadership. He established 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 created the first four-year program in gynecologic oncology, forged a direct corridor for translational research collaboration with the basic scientists in UCI’s School of Biological Sciences, and was the first in the country to obtain NIH funding through a T32 grant to support the two research years of the gynecologic oncology fellowship.

 A founding member of both the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO) and the National Cancer Institute’s Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG), DiSaia served as president of both the SGO and the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

During his four consecutive terms as Group Presiding Chair of the GOG, he spearheaded practice-changing clinical trials that established the role for adjuvant radiotherapy in 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 UCI Health, his research endeavors have had as their focus the molecular cascade that governs tumor immunology, the safety of estrogen replacement therapy among breast and endometrial cancer survivors, and the development of less disfiguring surgical approaches for vulvar cancer. DiSaia and Creasman’s Clinical Gynecologic Oncology, the most widely read textbook in the subspecialty, 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 also a Certificate of Commendation from the U.S. Senate. At the turn of the millenium, DiSaia was granted an audience with Pope John Paul II and shortly thereafter had bestowed upon him an honorary degree from the University of Brescia in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy.

DiSaia’s legacy lives in the hearts of numerous residents and fellows he trained over the last 42 years at UC Irvine. During this period, he eased the suffering of thousands of women who struggled with gynecologic malignancies, many of whom are alive without disease today. He loved old medical tomes, the New England Patriots and the Brunello grape from central Tuscany.

DiSaia passed away peacefully at his home on Sept. 27, 2018. He is survived by his loving wife, Patti DiSaia, four sons, their wives and numerous grandchildren.