September 1, 2019
American College of Surgeons (ACS) Past-President LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., MD, FACS, a brilliant surgeon, oncologist, medical educator, civic leader, patient advocate, and mentor to the students and residents he trained, died May 25 of cancer. He was 89 years old and is survived by his wife Ruth, son LaSalle D. Leffall III, and his sister, Dolores Leffall.
Born May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, FL, and raised in the small town of Quincy, FL, Dr. Leffall’s parents—LaSalle D. Leffall, Sr., a high school principal, and Martha, an elementary school teacher—instilled in him a love of learning. In his Presidential Address at the 1995 Clinical Congress, Dr. Leffall stated, “As parents they emphasized that with a good education and hard work, combined with honesty and integrity, there are no boundaries.”1 He carried this credo with him throughout his life, proving to be an exceptional student. He graduated valedictorian from high school at 15 years old, and summa cum laude in 1948 from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College—now Florida A&M University, Tallahassee.
Dr. Leffall as a resident
His first exposure to a physician was his godmother’s husband, the only black physician in Quincy. Although the family friend encouraged him to consider a medical career, the experience Dr. Leffall said most influenced his decision to pursue the path toward becoming a physician happened when he was nine years old and came across an injured bird. He placed the bird’s broken wing in a splint he fashioned out of tongue depressors from the physician’s office and nursed the creature back to health.2
He started medical school at the Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, DC, at 18 years old and graduated first in his class. He completed his surgical training at Freedmen’s Hospital—now Howard University Hospital—in 1957. As a medical student and resident, he encountered several mentors who would shape his view of the world and of surgery, including Charles R. Drew, MD, FACS, known for his research in blood and plasma transfusion and blood banking; Montague Cobb, MD, professor of anatomy; Burke “Mickey” Syphax, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist and Dr. Drew’s successor as surgery program director; and Jack White, MD, FACS, who would encourage Dr. Leffall to complete surgical oncology training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (1957–1959), New York, NY. He specialized in colon and rectal, breast, and head and neck cancers.
He served as chief of general surgery at the U.S. Army Hospital, Munich, Germany (1960−1961). Upon his return to the U.S., Dr. Leffall joined the Howard faculty as an assistant professor and became chairman, department of surgery, only eight years later, a position he held for 25 years. He was named the Charles R. Drew Professor in 1992, occupying the first endowed chair in the history of Howard’s department of surgery.
His teaching honors are unmatched in Howard University’s century-and-a-half-long history, including receiving the prestigious honored faculty award during the College of Medicine’s Honors and Oath Ceremony more than 30 times. His prolific academic contributions include more than 150 publications, three books, visiting professorships at more than 200 institutions internationally, 14 honorary degrees from universities in the U.S., and honorary fellowships from six international colleges of surgeons.
The great heights that Dr. Leffall reached never kept him from being accessible to students, patients, and staff in a manner that was marked by unconditional love and selflessness. He was a good listener, slow to give or take offense, and always encouraged his students and trainees to find the broader lesson in seemingly quotidian situations.
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. The breadth of his academic pursuits was nothing short of awe inspiring.
One of the authors of this article, Dr. Frederick, will always cherish that the first procedure that he performed as a fully accredited surgeon at Howard University was alongside Dr. Leffall in what was ultimately his final operation before retirement, a symbolic transition recalled more poignantly in the days following Dr. Leffall’s death.
Dr. Leffall’s dedication to Howard and surgical education was unwavering. Even after retiring from active practice, he remained on the faculty as a lecturer and valued resource at Howard University. He lectured at medical institutions across the country, taught more than 6,000 medical students, and trained more than 300 surgical residents.
Dr. Leffall delivering his ACS Presidential Address
Dr. Leffall was the first African American to serve as national President of the ACS, the American Cancer Society, the Society of Surgical Oncology, the Society of Surgical Chairs, and several other professional organizations.
In addition to serving as ACS President (2005−2006), Dr. Leffall served in a number of other leadership roles within the organization. He was Secretary (1983−1992) and a member of the following committees: the Advisory Committee on Nominations of the Board of Regents (1996−1999); the Communications Committee (1983−1987); the Committee on Development (1992−2004); and the Honors Committee (1994−1995). He also served as Vice-Chair of the Committee on Medical Motion Pictures (1983−1984), was a senior member of the Committee on Video-Based Education (1980−1990), and served as a consultant to the Health Policy and Reimbursement Committee (1986−1992). He was President of the Metropolitan Washington DC Chapter (1978−1979).
Dr. Leffall was a tireless supporter of the ACS Foundation, chairing the Fellows Leadership Society—the Foundation’s major gift society—and securing generous contributions from a private charitable foundation to fund ACS educational programs. He and Ruth established a significant planned gift through the ACS Foundation as members of the Mayne Heritage Society. For their leadership in philanthropy and service to the medical community, Dr. and Mrs. Leffall received the ACS Distinguished Philanthropist Award in 1998.3
Dr. Leffall with his wife, Ruth
Their philanthropic efforts extended beyond the College. In 1997, Dr. Leffall, his wife, and his sister established the Martha J. and LaSalle D. Leffall, Sr., Endowed Scholarship Fund and Endowed Professorship in Science at Florida A&M. Dr. Leffall also provided financial support for the LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Surgical Society, established in 1995 to provide funding for student and resident research.2
Dr. Leffall’s great passion was ensuring that cancer patients of all races and creeds had access to quality care. As president of the American Cancer Society (1979), he focused attention on the increasing incidence and mortality of cancer among black Americans, creating an innovative program to address cancer disparities among ethnic populations. He created an innovative program to promote early diagnosis and other preventive measures to reduce the higher rates of lung, stomach, pancreatic, and esophagus cancer among black men and uterine cancer among black women, the first program of its type in the nation.4
Today, health care disparities are a significant field of study and a major priority for cancer programs around the world. Just days after Dr. Leffall’s passing, a health care disparities study was presented and discussed at the plenary session of the 2019 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Dr. Leffall was a member of ASCO and served on the board of directors of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation (2003–2004).4
Cancer hospitals across the nation have recognized Dr. Leffall’s contributions to patient care. In 1987, the MD Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, Houston, TX, and Intercultural Cancer Council established The Biennial LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Award for surgeons who have had a significant impact on cancer prevention, treatment, and education in minority and economically disadvantaged communities. Two years later, the citizens of Quincy named a street, a path, and the surgical wing of Gadsden Memorial Hospital after him.2
His numerous awards and achievements only begin to highlight his extraordinary contributions to the field of medicine. Dr. Leffall was a true son of Howard and a loyal exemplar of the university’s motto: Truth and Service. He leaves behind a legacy of service and benevolence to the university as a longstanding donor who created opportunities for subsequent generations of students through his generosity.
Dr. Lefall’s ACS Presidential portrait
The authors will continue to live in Dr. Leffall’s honor and his example. He often referenced a quote by French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” In many ways, Dr. Leffall was, is, and always will be our ever-burning fire.
In his free time, Dr. Leffall enjoyed playing and watching tennis; listening to jazz, which he discovered as a fraternity brother of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley at Florida A&M; and reading classic literature.
The legions of human beings whom Dr. Leffall impressed, inspired, and improved 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.
Dr. Leffall recently was selected as a 2019 ACS Icon in Surgery and will be honored in a video presentation 11:30 am–12:30 pm Wednesday, October 30, at Clinical Congress 2019 in San Francisco, CA.