Humbert L. Riva, M.D.

Humbert L. Riva


Humbert L. Riva, M.D. of Short Hills, New Jersey, died on Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at Morristown Memorial Hospital following a brief illness. Dr. Riva was born on October 26, 1914, in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, the eleventh child of Frank Riva, a foreign exchange banker, and Josephine (Brusa) Riva. He was educated in Charleroi schools. He was taught by several of his sisters. Dr. Riva earned a BS from the University of Pittsburgh in 1935. He subsequently attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as Class President for three years and graduated at the top of his class in 1939. He was one of a few Pitt alumni to earn both the Chi-Ro-Nu Pi Pa Phi (later Phi Beta Kappa) as an undergraduate and Alpha Omega Alpha as a medical student. While serving his internship at St. Francis Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh, he met the love of his life, Betty Schaler, whom he married on 14 July 1941. Betty Schaler Riva died on their 59th anniversary in 2000.

Dr. Riva was drafted into the Army Medical Corps, where he served as a general surgeon through Word War II. He commanded the first portable surgical hospital (later known as MASH units in the Korean War). He served under General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell in Africa and in the China Burma Campaign. During World War II, Dr. Riva survived a battlefield appendectomy and numerous trips flying across the Himalayas to procure medical supplies. Very shortly after his own surgery, Dr. Riva had to run for cover during a bombing raid. This experience eventually led to his pioneering work in the early ambulation of surgical patients.

After the war, Dr. Riva accepted a commission in the regular Army and served a residency in the newly combined specialty of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Soon after becoming a Diplomate of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1949, Dr. Riva was appointed the first Director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Walter Reed. Dr. Riva was Maime Eisenhower's gynecologist and surgeon during the Eisenhower Presidency.

Dr. Riva retired from the Army to accept the first Chairmanship of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Seton Hall College of Medicine, the first medical school in New Jersey. He later continued his academic career at the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry and also was the Director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology from 1972 to 1998 at the St. Michael's Medical Center, which is affiliated with UMDNJ in Newark, New Jersey.

Dr. Riva made pioneering contributions in what are now several subspecialties in Obstetrics and Gynecology. He was an early supporter of VBACs (vaginal birth after cesarean section). Dr. Riva helped to develop a fluorescent staining technique for staining Pap smears. For many years, he directed a gynecologic cytology laboratory. Major research interests included toxemia of pregnancy, cytology in obstetrics and gynecology, the rule of surgery in pelvic malignancies, the role of endoscopy in obstetrics and gynecology and newer approaches to reconstructive pelvic surgery.

Dr. Riva was the author of over 100 scientific articles, monographs and textbooks. He produced over one dozen teaching films and scientific exhibits. This included pioneering experiences in endometriosis and endoscopy, cytology, chemotherapy as well as reconstructive and radical pelvic surgery. He directed numerous postgraduate courses and was an Examiner for the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology for many years. In addition, he was a Fellow of the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Seton Hall awarded Dr. Riva an Honorary Doctorate of Science and dedicated the Women's Health Service of St. Michaels's Medical Center in his name. The March of Dimes honored Dr. Riva for his work in Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Dr. and Mrs. Riva traveled extensively, as he lectured throughout the country and many parts of the world.

Dr. Riva was Past President of both the New York Gynecologic Society and the New York Obstetrical Society. He was Secretary Treasurer of the Society of Consultants to the Armed Forces Surgeon Generals. He was a founding member of the Society of Pelvic Oncologists. He served on the Executive Board of the Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

After 58 years of practicing clinical research and teaching, Dr. Riva retired in 1997 to care for his ailing wife. At the time of his retirement, he was the eldest obstetrician/gynecologist still active in academic medicine in New Jersey, among the eldest in the nation. Both Seton Hall University and New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry awarded Dr. Riva Professor Emeritus status. At the time of his death, Dr. Riva was collaborating with his daughter on a book based on more than 1,000 letters that he and his wife exchanged during World War II.

Two of Dr. Riva's nine children became physicians, and another an oral surgeon. His son, the late John M. Riva, M.D. and his son-in-law, John V. Coates, III, M.D., both became Diplomates of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Three of his grandchildren to date have followed their grandfather into the field of medicine. Dr. and Mrs. Riva delighted in their 26 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Dr. Riva was considered by all of us who had the distinct pleasure to have been trained by him, to be a highly innovative and accomplished surgeon and a master physician. Indeed, this small memorial statement only in part represents his many contributions to this specialty as well as to society itself.

Submitted by James L. Breen, M.D.

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