Hugo Rizzoli MD

Hugo Rizzoli MD

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Former Chief of Neurosurgery
1958 - 1972


JFK's secretary, Mrs. Lincoln; Robert F. Kennedy; Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Edgar J. Hoover are but a few of the famous names that sought care at the hands of Hugo V. Rizzoli, one of the most prominent neurosurgeons in Washington, during his long career. Now 91, Dr. Rizzoli, MedStar Washington Hospital Center's first chief of neurosurgery, still receives occasional calls for physician consults as well as care from "a few old patients who are crazy enough to continue to want to see me!" he says.

He vividly remembers his first day at the new MedStar Washington Hospital Center in 1958.

I was chief of neurosurgery at Emergency Hospital (after having been chief at Walter Reed) and had a patient with a serious brain aneurysm. I had operated on him a few days earlier, but he was by no means out of the woods. I told Emergency's administrator - Dr. Warwick Brown, a retired vice admiral, who then became MedStar Washington Hospital Center's first administrator - that they MUST keep the OR open for me, even as other departments were shutting down for the move to the new hospital. After a couple of days of this, Dr. Brown finally said, "Hugo, we've got to go. I can't keep the hospital open any longer." And I said, "My patient can't be jostled - how are we going to move him?"

Well, Dr. Brown made arrangements with the Police Department, who escorted us on motorcycles all the way from the old Emergency Hospital on New York Avenue to MedStar Washington Hospital Center. They surrounded the ambulance, with some going ahead to block off streets so we'd never have to stop or change speed. Others followed to re-open the streets after we passed. It worked, and I admitted my first patient to MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The new hospital was an amazing place, both in terms of its physical structure and approach. It was a community hospital but ahead of its time. Open heart surgery was just on the horizon, and right from the get-go, they recognized that opportunity and along with it, the need to have both a full-time chief of medicine, Brigadier General Thomas W. Mattingly, and a chief of surgery, Dr. Nicholas P.D. Smyth. Outside of a university hospital, full-time chairmen were unheard of!

Of course, the Hospital Center then went on to become one of the foremost hospitals in the world for cardiovascular care, along with many other "firsts." It was and still is a real innovator.


In 1972, I was invited to become the first full-time Chief of the Department of Neurosurgery at George Washington University Medical School. When I talked to my wife about it, she said, "Take it. I'm tired of feeding you dinner at 11 p.m.!"

But I maintained my involvement with MedStar Washington Hospital Center. In the late 1960s, I had established a joint neurosurgery residency program with the Hospital Center and GW. When I became head of the department at GW, I held all my Saturday morning resident conferences at the Hospital Center to make sure everyone realized how important it was to the program.

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