It is with great sadness that I share the recent passing of an oncology icon, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. As said by Dr. Wayne Frederick, a mentee, surgical oncologist, and president of Howard University, “He was a surgeon par excellence, oncologist, medical educator, civic leader, and mentor to me and so many others.”
I, too, was fortunate to be mentored by Leffall, who not only taught me about cancer, but also how to deliver the message to others. He was never too busy to talk and provided his cell phone number for me to call whenever I needed.
LaSalle D. Leffall, the Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery, Howard University College of Medicine, was born May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, FL, but grew up in Quincy, FL, attending its public schools. In 1948, at the age of 18, he was awarded a B.S. with greatest distinction (summa cum laude) from Florida A&M College.
In 1952, he received an M.D. degree from Howard University College of Medicine, ranking first in his class. Completing his surgical training at Freedmen’s Hospital, now Howard University Hospital, in 1957, he then took a surgical oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center from 1957 to 1959.
He began his military career at the rank of captain, M.C., serving as chief of general surgery at the U. S. Army Hospital in Munich, Germany from 1960 to 1961. He received an Honorable Discharge in December 1961 with the rank of Major. His membership on Howard’s faculty began in 1962, progressing to professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery in 1970—a position he held for 25 years.
He served as a visiting professor and guest lecturer at more than 200 medical institutions in the U.S. and abroad. He also authored or coauthored more than 150 articles and book chapters.
Throughout his 55 years on the faculty, he taught approximately 6,000 medical students of the 9,000 graduates since the medical school’s founding in 1868. He also helped train nearly 300 general surgery residents of the 360 residents trained since the program’s inception in 1936.
LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. in the O.R. in the 1960s. – Photo courtesy of Howard University Archives
His professional life has been devoted to the study of cancer, particularly among African Americans. In 1979, as national president of the American Cancer Society, he launched a program on the challenge of cancer among Black Americans. He paid special attention to the increasing incidence and mortality of cancer in this population group and its implications for similar studies in other racial and ethnic minorities. It was the first program of this type in the nation, addressing the problems of cancer health disparities. Today, practically all oncology groups have disparity issues as one of their major priorities.
He was the first African American president of the following organizations: American Cancer Society, Society of Surgical Oncology, Society of Surgical Chairmen, Washington Academy of Surgery, and the American College of Surgeons.
He was also a member of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences. He is past president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons and past chair of the Surgical Section of the National Medical Association.
He has received 14 honorary degrees from American universities, including: Georgetown University, University of Maryland, Florida A & M University, Meharry Medical College, Clark University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Howard University, University of the South, Albany Medical School, Amherst College, Lafayette College, Thomas Jefferson University, Princeton University, and Colgate University.
He is an Honorary Fellow of the following: The West African College of Surgeons, the Société Internationale de Chirurgie, College of Surgeons of South Africa, the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada, the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Chirurgie (German Surgical Society), and the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
He was named the first Charles R. Drew Professor in 1992. The LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. Surgical Society was formed in 1995 and the Leffall Chair in Surgery was established in 1996. He received the first Heritage Award from the Society of Surgical Oncology in 2001. The biennial LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. Cancer Prevention and Control Award is sponsored by the Intercultural Cancer Council and the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
The Pugh-Leffall Surgical Educational Fellowship—sponsored by a grant from Carla Pugh, HUCM ’92, and former surgical resident—is awarded to outstanding sophomores with an interest in surgery and surgical research. The LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. Komen Fellowship in Health Disparities was established by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 2006. The LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Learning Resource Center—made possible by a major contribution from Stephen Rush, HUCM ’83, on behalf of his class— was established in the College of Medicine in 2006.
The Howard University Press published his memoirs, No Boundaries – A Cancer Surgeon’s Odyssey in 2005 and Equanimity Under Duress: Calmness and Courage in the Battle Against Cancer in 2014. He is also coauthor of the Howard University College of Medicine sesquicentennial publication Education, Excellence, and Exemplars, which was released in 2017.
The 2009 Howard medical school class members named him as Outstanding Faculty Member during their Long White Coat Ceremony. Other honors from that year include: Inaugural Recipient Charles R. Drew Award of Excellence from Charles Drew School of Medicine and Science in June; and Special Recognition and Commendation as Chair, C-Change from 1998-2009, given at annual meeting, Kennebunkport, Maine later that same month. An invitation from President George H.W. Bush was sent on occasion of his 85th birthday.
Wayne Frederick, Howard University president, with LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., seated. – Photo courtesy of Howard University Archives
He was chair of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation from 2002 to 2007 and 2011 to 2012 and chair of the President’s Cancer Panel from 2002 to 2011. In 2011, he received the W. Montague Cobb Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Medical Association. At the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he received the Commander’s Award for Public Service, for his work as the principal civilian consultant to the General Surgery Service for 30 years, from 1970 to 2000.
Howard University president Sidney A. Ribeau appointed him interim senior vice president and executive dean for health sciences in August 2011 and interim provost and chief academic officer in December 2011. He served in these positions until 2012.
This latter appointment combined the previous positions of provost and senior vice president for health sciences into a single senior academic leader position reporting directly to the president. He served in this position until July 2012. He continued as the Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery, and, at the time of his passing, he was senior advisor to Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick, one of his former students.
“The great heights reached by Dr. Leffall never kept him from being accessible to students, patients, and staff in a manner that was marked by unconditional love and selflessness,” Frederick said. “He was a good listener, slow to give or take offense and always encouraging others to find the broader lesson in seemingly quotidian situations.”
Edward Cornwell—who was also mentored by Leffall, is currently the LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., M.D. Professor and Chairman of Surgery at Howard University College of Medicine and surgeon-in-chief at Howard University Hospital—provided me the most vivid description of his interactions with Leffall as a mentor and teacher.
“His towering intellect made each interaction edifying. In one moment, he might correct your grammar before pivoting to discuss some complex idea or concept. Dr. Leffall might even share a few thoughts in German, given his fluency in the language,” said Cornwell.
“The breadth of his academic pursuits was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The legions of human beings impressed, inspired, and improved by Dr. Leffall transcends surgery, medicine, or barriers of language, race, class, politics, or geography. He was a lover of life, lived his to the absolute fullest, and attacked its vicissitudes with a hallmark discipline that he always displayed and that became emblematic of him and his iconic mantra: Equanimity Under Duress.”
Even after retiring from surgery, Leffall remained on the faculty as a lecturer and resource at Howard University. He continued contributing to the National Medical Association, as well as other organizations.
LaSalle D. Leffall’s impact on oncology, and other areas of medicine, in the United States and globally is well-recognized and he will be forever remembered as the ultimate physician, teacher, mentor, administrator, public servant, advocate, and friend.
I am sure the entire oncology community joins the Howard University community in extending our sincerest sympathies to Dr. Leffall’s wife, Ruth, Dr. Leffall’s son, LaSalle Leffall, III also known as “Donney,” his sister Dolores C. Leffall, their family, friends, his staff, and mentees. We will keep them in our hearts during this difficult time.
The author is clinical professor of medicine and medical oncology in the Department of Medical Oncology, director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities, and associate director of diversity affairs at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, as well as the 116th president of the National Medical Association.