Black History – LaSalle D. Leffall, M.D.
This month, CRCHD staff will be blogging about influential black doctors, scientists, and medical innovators, as well as rising stars from our portfolio. If you would like to nominate someone to be honored, please email CUREsupplements (at) NIH (dot) gov
“Equanimity Under Duress,” surgeon and mentor Dr. LaSalle Leffall was known to say, “is the hallmark of surgical discipline.” Many of his trainees would note that this mantra summed up Leffall himself – his composure, dedication, integrity, and self-motivation being the qualities they most admired in their teacher.
Dr. Leffall grew up attending the public schools of Quincy, Florida, and then Florida A&M College, where he graduated summa cum laude at the age of 18. He then attended Howard university Medical School, where he studied under legendary surgeon Charles Drew (who revolutionized blood transfusions and protested the racial segregation of donated blood) until the time of Drew’s death. In 1952, Leffall received graduated first in his class.
He went on to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for a fellowship in surgical oncology. He served as Chief of General Surgery at the US Army Hospital in Munich, Germany and was honorably discharged in 1961 with the rank of Major. In 1962 he joined the faculty at Howard, and became the Chair of the Surgery Department from 1970 to 1995. Dr. Leffall specialized in colorectal, breast, and head and neck cancers.
In 1970 he became the first Black President of the American Cancer Society, where he developed the first program addressing cancer health disparities in the United States. In addition to ACS, Leffall was the first African-American President of the Society of Surgical Oncology, Society of Surgical Chairmen, Washington Academy of Surgery, and the American College of Surgeons. Leffall chaired the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the President’s Cancer Panel, and is a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. He also received the Commander’s Award for Public Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for his decades of consultation.
Dr. Leffall retired from performing surgery in 2008, but continues to serve on the Howard faculty as a lecturer and mentor. He is known for his punctuality as well as his diligence in all pursuits; as Dr. Edward E. Cornwell III noted in a manuscript commemorating his 2017 Festschrift, “Trainees arriving on the surgical ward for 6:30 a.m. rounds with Dr. Leffall should have expected to be seeing their first patients by 6:27 a.m. Those of us who were medical students in the early 1980s were aware of a rumor that Dr. Leffall arose at three o'clock each morning (he was in his early fifties then) so that he could play tennis before starting his day. We were sufficiently inquisitive and cynical to wonder about the logistics of that (for one, who in the world did he find to play with at such an hour?), but we were far too respectful and awestruck to ask him. We created our satisfaction by fabricating the only credible response: that any third-year student rotating on surgery would be pleased to be Dr. Leffall's tennis partner, without question!”
Supporting the next generation of surgeons is a passion of Leffall’s. Throughout his career, he mentored more than 6,000 medical students and 300 surgical residents. “I have gotten so much in life but it is not what you get, it is what you give. I have received a lot but I want to give a lot,” Dr. Leffall said of his mentoring. “I’m so hopeful for the future. We have made so many advances and so many reasons to be hopeful.”