Leffall, Lasalle Jr. 1930–

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Lasalle Leffall, Jr. 1930

Physician, surgeon, cancer researcher, educator

At a Glance

Began a Distinguished Career in Medicine

Continued to Focus Efforts on Cancer in Minorities

Earned National Recognition in His Field


As past president of the American Cancer Society and present chairman of the Department of Surgery at Howard University, Dr. LaSalle Leffall, Jr. is in great demand to deliver university lectures in his many areas of expertise. His long list of his visiting professorships attests to both the high regard of his medical colleagues as well as his value to his chosen specialty: cancer research.

When Claude H. Organ, who featured Dr. Leffalls achievements in his book A Century of Black Surgeons, asked him about memorable moments from his various travels, Leffall remembered one group of black students who invited him to the University of Florida Medical School. The surgeon asked what particular topic they wished him to lecture about, and they said it didnt matter to them: he could lecture on anything, but he had to operatenot just assist, but lead a surgical team and perform an operation himself. No black surgeon had ever done that at their university hospital.

Leffall completed a subtotal gastrectomy (surgical removal of part of the stomach) while the students observed, and the patient did well after the operation. The procedure took less than one hour, skin to skin, and Leffall called the experience unforgettable. It was also an event of personal significance. Born in 1930 in Quincy, a small town in the rural northwest portion of Florida, the doctor had attended a segregated high school where his father, LaSalle Leffall, Sr., was principal. Leffalls father taught him not to yield to the type of racist thinking that would set some people aside as second class.

And that day, as the residents scheduled an operation that would highlight Leffalls considerable surgical skills, the words of his father were fulfilled. As Leffall explained in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB): Growing up in Florida, my father used to tell us that with a good education and hard work there were no boundaries. And Id look around at the way things were and say, Yeah, sure Dad. But in the end what my father said was true. Im not saying racism doesnt exist. You can think that way. But if you do your work well, you dont have to think that way anymore. Youre not automatically denied anything in life because of your race.

In the Leffall family, education was held up as the equalizer of institutionalized inequities. Leffalls father had come from a one-room schoolhouse in Texas to attend

At a Glance

Born LaSalle Doheny Leffall, Jr., May 22, 1930; raised in Florida; son of LaSalle Doheny, Sr. and Martha (Jordan) Leffall; married Ruth McWilliams, August 18, 1956; children: LaSalle Doheny Leffall III. Education : Florida A&M University, B.S., 1948; Howard University College of Medicine, M.D., 1952.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital, St Louis, MO, intern, 1952-53; Freedmens Hospital, Washington, DC, resident, 1953-57; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, senior fellow in cancer surgery, 1957-59; Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, DC, assistant professor, 1962-66, associate professor, 1966-70, professor of surgery and chairman of the department, 1970, Charles R. Drew Chair in Surgery, 1992. Member of the National Cancer Advisory Board. Visiting professor at numerous colleges and universities. Military service: Medical Corps and U.S. Army, became captain; U.S. Army Hospital, Munich, Germany, chief of general surgery, 1960-61.

Member: National Medical Association, American Cancer Society (president, 1979), Society of Surgeons of Oncology (president, 1978), Alpha Omega Alpha.

Awards: First Prize, Charles R. Drew Fundamental Forum, 1954; named outstanding educator in America, Florida A&M University, 1971 and 1974; William H. Sinkler Memorial Award, 1972; distinguished service medal, National Medical Association, 1979.

Addresses: Office College of Medicine, Howard University, 2400 Sixth st., N.W., Washington, DC 20059.

college at Iowa State and the University of Chicago. After a few years on the faculty at Florida A&M College he became principal of Stevens High School, the school from which his son later graduated at the age of 15. Leffall credits his father with the inspiration and encouragement that drove him to medicine. It must have been a forceful inspiration, because at every step of his education Leffall was ahead of the pack. He followed his early graduation from high school with another accelerated exit at 18 from Florida A&M Universitysumma cum laude. In 1948, he left for the Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C., and four years later, at the age of 22, he graduated as the medical schools highest ranking student.

As a teacher, Leffall has told students, according to A Century of Black Surgeons, After reading an exam question, if you must consider each answer A to E, rather than look for the answer you know is right, then youre not ready and you have been found wanting. These are standards he has kept himself, learning the medical records of his patients by heart before he goes on his rounds at six a.m. Such preparation has made him a legend to his students. One surgical apprentice to Leffall caught him in an erroronce. His colleague at Howard University, Dr. W. M. Cobb, recalled that the surgical assistant could be heard for the whole year repeating: I caught Leffall one day.

Began a Distinguished Career in Medicine

It was in the area of oncology, or the study of cancerous tumors, that Leffall focused his efforts and research after his residency in surgery at the Freedmens Hospital in Washington, D.C. From 1957 through 1959, he took a senior fellowship in cancer surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. After a year as captain of the Medical Corps and chief of general surgery in the U.S. Army Hospital in Munich, Germany, he returned to Howard University Medical School as an assistant professor of surgery, where by 1970 he was promoted to the position he now holds as full professor and chairman of the department.

Leffalls dedication and accomplishments in the field of oncology were recognized when the Society of Surgical Oncology named him president in 1978. The next year, the American Cancer Society elected him its president as well. In the latter organization, he helped initiate programs geared to the special problems of cancer in blacks. For no major cancer is the survival rate greater among Blacks than among Whites, Leffall told Ebonys Michele Burgen at the time of his election. In other words, Whites are ahead of us in every major cancer in terms of surviving such malignancies as lung cancer, stomach cancer and large intestinal [colon] cancer.

Continued to Focus Efforts on Cancer in Minorities

As president, Leffall tried to increase minority staffing of the American Cancer Society as well as recruit black volunteers. These were the first steps in beefing up policies of prevention and education among blacks. Speaking of the fear of cancer that paralyzes so many patients until its too late to treat successfully, Leffall told Burgen that its not that the care isnt there, but its not accessible enough to patients. Black patients tend to come in with more advanced stages of the diseases than do White patients, and thus they have a poorer cure rate.

Some of the disparity in cancer rates among minorities could reflect sociological differences. Over the last 50 years, blacks have consumed a far richer diet than in the past, thus increasing their intake of carcinogenic proteins and animal fats over the more traditional diet of carbohydrates and fibers. All of us in America are now eating essentially the same diet of protein. Our eating habits have made us all prey to the illnesses which afflict Whites, Leffall told Burgen. But Whites have better access to information on the warning signs of cancer and so are more likely to seek treatment sooner. For other cancers such as prostate cancer, the risk is far greater for Blacks. We simply dont know why prostate cancer is increasing among American Blacks, Leffall told Jack Slater of Ebony. But we do know there is a much lower incidence of the disease in African Blacks. We also know that when an African comes to the U.S., his chances of getting prostate cancer is so increased that within four or five years he is as vulnerable to the disease as the American Black man.

Earned National Recognition in His Field

As much as he dedicated himself to the broader aspects of prevention, nutrition, and education as head of the American Cancer Institute, Leffall continued to remind others that the one thing we must never forget [is] that the object of our attention and affection is the cancer patient. In an afterword to A Century of Black Surgeons, two doctors who had worked closely with him confessed that they sought him personally when they required surgery on themselves.

It was this thoroughness of practical and case-by-case knowledge that brought him once again to national attention in 1985. When President Ronald Reagan underwent surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his colon, CBS Evening News asked Leffall to explain the procedure to its viewers. Leffall told Black Enterprise that he received a call at his office a few days later from an 82-year-old patient. She told him, I rarely see blacks on television discussing anything except entertainment, sports or civil rights. When I saw you explain something as intricate as surgery, I just had to let you know how proud I was. When he heard that, the usually well-prepared doctor said his eyes got a little wet.



American Men and Women of Science, 18th ed., Bowker, 1992.

Organ, Claude H., and M. M. Kosiba, editors, A Century of Black Surgeons, Transcript Press (Norman, OK), 1987.


Black Enterprise, October 1988.

Ebony, July 1974; April 1978.

CBB spoke with LaSalle Leffall on April 27, 1992.

Kevin Conley