A Pioneering Surgeon Who Opened Doors for Others, LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr, MD, Dies at 89

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Lifting himself from the barriers of the segregated South, LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr, MD, would become a nationally regarded oncologic surgeon who opened doors for other in the medical profession. His career was distinguished by “firsts,” such as the first African America President of both the American Cancer Society and the American College of Surgeons. Dr. Leffall died on May 25, 2019. He was 89.

LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr, MD

LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr, MD

Rose From Institutional Discrimination

Dr. Leffall was born on May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, Florida, and reared in nearby Quincy, a small town situated in the panhandle region. Dr. Leffall’s parents were both educators. His father taught agriculture at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical College and then later served as a principal in an all-black high school. His mother taught elementary school.

In a 2010 interview with the National Library of Medicine, Dr. Leffall spoke candidly about living through the era of Jim Crow segregation in the South. “I realized early on that there were two worlds. On Saturday, we would always go to the movies. If there weren’t a good movie playing at the black theater, we’d go to the white movie theater, but we’d have to enter from the rear and sit in the balcony. When I was three or four, I learned about segregation. I’d ask why, and people would say it was just the way things were done. It hurt, but you learned to live with it.”

Dr. Leffall noted that his greatest source of inspiration during tough times was his father, whose mantra was, “With a good education and hard work, combined with honesty and integrity, there are no boundaries.”

College at 15

Having started school at 5 years old and skipping a grade, Dr. Leffall graduated high school and set off to college at the tender age of 15. His road to medicine was paved by two circumstances. His godmother was married to the only black physician in Quincy, Dr. W.S. Stevens, who would tell Dr. Leffall fascinating anecdotes from the “great profession of doctoring.”

Even more influential was an after-school event when he was nine. “I found a little bird with a wounded leg outside the school and took it home. I made a splint out of ice-cream sticks and nursed the bird back to health. I cured the bird, and that experience more than anything else influenced my decision to become a doctor so I could cure sick people,” said Dr. Leffall. “Plus, I always loved science and did very well during early schooling.”

Dr. Leffall entered the historically black Florida A&M University, graduating summa cum laude in 1948 at the age of 18. With help from the university’s president, Dr. Leffall was accepted to Howard University College of Medicine—one of only two medical schools in the South that accepted black students. He received his MD from Howard in 1952, graduating first in his class. Dr. Leffall completed an internship at Homer G. Philips Hospital in St. Louis in 1953 and then did his surgical residency at both Freedmen’s Hospital and DC General Hospital in Washington, DC.

In 1957, Dr. Leffall was accepted for a surgical oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York. He would always remind people that his fellowship path was paved by one of his valued mentors, Jack E. White, MD, the first African American to train in surgical oncology at MSK.

“With ongoing basic and clinical research, we will continue to make progress that could eventually lead to a universal cure for cancer. When that happens, I’ll applaud from Heaven.”
— LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr, MD

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After completing his surgical fellowship, Dr. Leffall entered the military at the rank of captain, MC, serving as Chief of General Surgery at the U.S. Army Hospital in Munich from 1960 to 1961. After receiving an honorable discharge from the military with the rank of major, Dr. Leffall joined the faculty of Howard University College of Medicine in 1962. He would soon become the University’s Chairman of the Department of Surgery, a position he held until his retirement.

A Distinguished Career

Dr. Leffall received 14 honorary degrees from American universities. He was named the first Charles R. Drew Professor in 1992 at Howard University. The LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. Surgical Society was formed in 1995, and the Leffall Chair in Surgery was established in 1996. 

In 2013, Dr. Leffall told The ASCO Post that survival rates and quality of life for cancer patients overall had progressed during his 65 years in medicine, but that his hope was to eliminate the disease altogether. “With ongoing basic and clinical research, we will continue to make progress that could eventually lead to a universal cure for cancer. When that happens, I’ll applaud from Heaven.”

Dr. Leffall was an avid tennis player and jazz enthusiast who was admired by all who knew him for his gracious and dignified comportment as well as his grace under pressure. In 1956, he married Ruth Williams, who survives him along with his son, LaSalle III.