A Tribute to Daniel C. Riordan, MD (1917-2012)

Daniel Riordan, MDDaniel C. Riordan, MD (1917-2012):  A World Class Hand Surgeon with the Grace of Humility

The most famous orthopaedic surgeon in Louisiana, Daniel C. Riordan, MD, a master hand surgeon, died in Shreveport on October 27, 2012, at the age of 95.   Surgeons from around the world came to New Orleans to study hand surgery under Dr. Riordan, who had the remarkable grace of humility.

He became President of the Louisiana Orthopaedic Association and the elite American Society for Surgery of the Hand.  He was born in 1917.  During World War II the Army concentrated the most severe hand wounds into nine hand surgery centers.  When Dr. Riordan was only two and a half years out of Stanford medical school, he was drafted into the Army and placed in charge of the orthopaedic and hand services at the 3,000 bed Valley Forge Hospital near Philadelphia, the largest Army Hospital in the US at that time.  Dr. Riordan had a concentrated experience in hand surgery/war wounds.  He pioneered tendon transfers for paralyzed fingers and thumbs.  When he found that German prisoners of war pilots arrived with fresh wounds over metal rods in their thigh and leg bones after being shot down, he obtained some of these rods from Sweden and became the first surgeon in the US to use these rods.

After World War II, and Cornell in New York City, Dr, Riordan moved to New Orleans and went into private practice in association with Dr. Rufus Alldredge, and later with Drs. J. Kenneth Saer, Ray J. Haddad and Clay Williams. He practiced at Southern Baptist Hospital and Touro Infirmary. He did surgery on indigent patients at the old Charity Hospital, and the now closed VA Hospital and US Public Health Hospitals.

He taught on the part time clinical faculty of Tulane University Medical School Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. He was named Full Clinical Professor in 1949 and later Emeritus Professor at the time of his retirement. He did the first spine fusion surgery for scoliosis in Louisiana, pioneered the Riordan/Haddad wrist fusion, and was the first to recognize certain endemic infections of the hand in Louisiana fishermen. He pioneered pin fixation of arm bone fractures above the elbow instead of the usual traction and cast treatment long before today’s x-ray image intensifiers and power tools.

His real joy, however, was in caring for leper hands as a volunteer at Carville and the hands of crippled children as a volunteer at the Shrine Hospital. Once a week on his day off, he traveled from New Orleans to Carville, Louisiana, the leprosarium for the entire United States, where he became a world expert on leprosy hands; he developed many surgical techniques at Carville for paralyzed leprosy hands.Dr. Riordan also traveled once a month to Shreveport, Louisiana, often flying his own Cessna, to operate on children at the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children. There he pioneered the surgical treatment of congenital deformities of the child’s hand such as radial club hand. He invented a modification of the classic tendon transfer for a child’s paralyzed shoulder. He invented the Bridle Procedure, later modified and popularized by Dr. Raoul Rodriguez (current Chairman of Crthopaedic Surgery at Tulane) in treating patients with foot drop.

He treated operating room technicians and janitors as his friends. He treated all his patients, whether they were paupers or VIPs, with the same profound compassion. He had a dry sense of humor. He was a master surgeon who combined intellectual preeminence with nobility of character, and was a wonderful role model. He was a master jeweler and enjoyed collecting gemstones (especially opals), and designed and made jewelry, intricate work similar to surgery on the human hand. After his first wife Betty died, he married Eleanor, who also passed away. Survivors include a son, Daniel Riordan of Stockton, Calif.; two daughters, Sharyn Smith of Plano, Texas, and Terry Stanton of Metairie; a stepson, Robert Hightower of Maryville, Tenn.; a brother, Robert Riordan of Napa, Calif.; nine grandchildren; a step-grandchild; and nine great-grandchildren.

When he operated on a live hand in the operating room or demonstrated the dissection on a frozen cadaver hand on closed circuit video in Tulane’s auditorium, he taught anatomy and biomechanics to his assistants and the spellbound audience, who marveled at his skillful technique. He combined an intensely focused enthusiasm for work with an artistic sense of perfection. He was a patient teacher of hand surgery to his students at Tulane and in the Riordan Hand Society; he was alert until he died at age 95. He was brilliant, visionary, taciturn, imperturbable, and had nobility of character.

Author:J. Ollie Edmunds, MD, Professor Emeritus of Orthopaedic Surgery, Chief of Hand Surgery, Tulane University School of Medicine

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000