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Leffall, LaSalle(1930–) - Oncologist, surgeon, Chronology, Attends Medical School, Begins Career, Bedside Manner, Celebrates Life and Work

cancer howard hospital college

LaSalle Leffall is one of the leading cancer surgeons in the world. The first black president of the American Cancer Society and the American College of Surgeons, Leffall, born and raised in the Jim Crow South, has broken many racial barriers with his research, work as a surgeon, and teaching. Leffall has won numerous awards and has earned the admiration of those in and out of the medical establishment around the world for devoting his career to the study of cancer, particularly its high rates among African Americans.

LaSalle Leffall was born in Tallahassee, Florida to educators LaSalle Leffall Sr. and Martha Jordan Leffall, who met when they were students at Alabama Teachers College. LaSalle Leffall Sr. was the only child in his family out of eleven children to attend college. As a child, Leffall Jr. was urged by his father to go into the field of medicine. “My folks, particularly my father, said that he and my mother as teachers were doing something imparting knowledge but a physician could do so much more,” Leffall Jr. told the Washington Post . Leffall Sr. always told his two children, LaSalle Jr. and Delores, “With a good education and hard work combined with honesty and integrity, there are no boundaries.” The younger Leffall, who was growing up in the segregated South in Quincy, Florida, was skeptical of this advice. Leffall’s father acknowledged his son’s skepticism but urged his son to heed this advice, which he repeated to his children until they were grown.

Skipping second grade and completing high school in three years enabled Leffall to graduate high school in 1945 as valedictorian and start college at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical College (now University and known as FAMU) at age fifteen. Leffall, who was bound for medical school, was also part of the college’s basketball team. His heroes in college were Joe Louis and Paul Robeson, and he enjoyed the writings of Frank Yerby.

Chronology

1930

Born in Tallahassee, Florida on May 22

1945

Graduates from high school as valedictorian

1948

Graduates summa cum laude from Florida A&M College

1952

Graduates at the top of the class from Howard University Medical School; interns at Homer G. Lewis Hospital in St. Louis

1953

Serves as an assistant surgical resident at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C.

1954

Serves as assistant surgical resident at Washington D.C. General Hospital

1956

Serves as chief surgical resident at Freedman’s Hospital

1957

Serves as a senior fellow in cancer surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital

1960

Serves as chief general surgeon in U.S. Army while stationed in Germany

1962

Joins Howard University’s faculty

1970

Appointed chairman of the Department of Surgery at Howard University

1978

Testifies before the Health Subcommittee of the Senate Human Resources Committee about his research on cancer rates among African Americans

1979

Becomes the first African American president of the American Cancer Society

1994

Becomes the first African American president of the American College of Surgeons

1996

Howard University establishes an endowed chair of surgery in Leffall’s name

1997

Donates $350,000 to Florida A&M University, the largest donation from a single contributor in the university’s history

2005

Releases autobiography, No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon’s Odyssey

As a senior, Leffall applied to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee and Howard University in Washington, D.C. His first choice, Meharry Medical College, was the school that Dr W. S. Stevens, the only black physician in Quincy and the husband of Leffall’s godmother, urged him to attend. Leffall was not accepted to Meharry. His grades were excellent, but he only did slightly better than average on his admissions test, since he had not been exposed to much of its content in his undergraduate career. Leffall and George Rawls, another student at Florida A&M who had a 4.0 GPA and was a good friend of Leffall’s, were both denied admission to Howard University. Dr. William H. Gray Jr., Florida A&M’s president, went to Washington, D.C. and demanded to know from both the Howard president and dean why Leffall and Rawls were not accepted. A week later, Leffall and Rawls received acceptance letters. Leffall graduated summa cum laude from Florida A&M in 1948 and both he and Rawls went on to Howard University Medical School.

Attends Medical School, Begins Career

In October 1951, while Leffall was in medical school, his father died of a massive stroke. Not long before his death, Leffall Sr. told his son that he and the family would attend Leffall Jr.‘s graduation in June 1952. The death of Leffall’s father resulted in his not having tuition money to continue his medical education. Leffall contacted Walter Beneke, a wealthy businessman whom he had met while working as a waiter and bartender at a golf club on Nantucket in the summers of 1950 and 1951. He asked Beneke for a $500 loan; a few days later, Beneke sent the young medical student a check for $500 with a note stating that the money was not a loan, but a gift and asked Leffall for two things: to help someone else out financially someday and to become a fine physician. Also during Leffall’s final year of medical school at Howard, he met his future wife, Ruth McWilliams, who had recently graduated from Virginia Union College. She met Leffall in the emergency room of Howard University’s hospital. Leffall and McWilliams married on August 18, 1956. Their only child, LaSalle Doheny Leffall III, was born on January 6, 1963.

After graduating first in his class at Howard Medical School in 1952, Leffall interned at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis. He served as an assistant surgical resident at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. from 1953 to 1954. Then he went on to be an assistant surgical resident at Washington, D.C. General Hospital from 1954 to 1955. Leffall returned to Freedman’s Hospital where he was by then a chief surgical resident from 1956 to 1957. From 1957 to 1959, Leffall was a senior fellow in cancer surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital. He served a year in the army as chief of general surgery from 1960 to 1961. Leffall came back to the United States and joined Howard University’s faculty in 1962 and became involved in the local American Cancer Society in Washington, D.C. In 1970, he was appointed chairman of the Department of Surgery. In 1992, Leffall was named the Charles R. Drew professor of surgery. This position was the first endowed chair in the surgery department’s history. Leffall became the first African American president of the American Cancer Society in 1979, and in 1994, he became the first African American president of the American College of Surgeons. In 1996, Howard University established an endowed chair of surgery in Leffall’s name.

In 1978, Leffall testified before the Health Subcommittee of the Senate Human Resources Committee about his research on cancer rates among African Americans. Leffall told the subcommittee that African Americans have higher incidences of lung, colon, rectum, and prostate cancer than their white counterparts, and African American males have the highest prostate cancer rate in the world. Leffall stresses prevention by encouraging African Americans to get tests such as colonoscopies in order to detect the disease early.

Bedside Manner

Leffall’s personality has won over many. During his senior fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, Leffall encountered a challenging incident with a wealthy, white female patient who had advanced uterine cancer. The patient refused to let Leffall examine her. The chief surgeon, Dr. Brunswick, who was scheduled to operate on her the next day, threatened to immediately discharge the woman unless she allowed Leffall to examine her. After her operation, the woman apologized to Leffall for her prejudice and the two became good friends.

Despite achieving such a distinguished career, Leffall did not become arrogant. In bestowing the first Society of Surgical Oncology’s Heritage Award to Leffall in March of 2001, Edward M. Copeland III recalled the first time he met the cordial Leffall on a tennis court and how surprised he was when Leffall knew his name. Leffall’s sister, Dorothy, a librarian, proudly recounted to the Washington Post the time in childhood when her brother healed an injured bird.

Dr. Leffall in his busy life has found time to go to schools and talk to students in both primary and secondary schools on the matter of achieving their dreams by focusing on their education. Having already become a fine physician, Leffall was to grant Walter Beneke’s other request for the favor that Beneke did for him so many years ago. In 1997, Leffall gave the profits of a very successful investment to Florida A&M University for a scholarship fund. The $350,000 gift was the largest donation from an individual in the university’s history. The only criteria that he established was that applicants were not to be discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, or gender.

Celebrates Life and Work

Leffall serves on the boards of many civic and profession organizations, including the medical advisory board of the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation, as a trustee of the National Health Museum, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. He has authored or co-authored over 130 articles and chapters. His autobiography, No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon’s Odyssey was published in 2005 by Howard University Press.

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almost 7 years ago

Very insightful and well organized website.