It is with a heavy heart that I write to share that an icon of Howard University and a giant in the field of Medicine, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., has passed away. He was a surgeon par excellence, oncologist, medical educator, civic leader, and mentor, to me and so many others.
Born on May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, Florida, Dr. Leffall was an exceptional student graduating from high school at just 15 years old, and summa cum laude from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College–now Florida A&M University–in 1948. He was trained at the Howard University College of Medicine and ultimately graduated first in his class. He completed his surgical training at Freedmen’s Hospital—now Howard University Hospital—in 1957, and then completed a surgical oncology training at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (1957-59).
In 1962, Dr. Leffall joined Howard’s faculty as an assistant professor and became chairman of the Department of Surgery only eight years later, a position he held for 25 years.
Dr. Leffall was the first African American to serve as national president of the American Cancer Society, where 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.
Dr. Leffall was also the first African American president of other national organizations, including the Society of Surgical Oncology, the Society of Surgical Chairmen, and the American College of Surgeons. He lectured at more than 200 medical institutions across the country, taught more than 6,000 medical students, and trained more than 300 surgical residents.
His teaching honors are unmatched in the university’s century-and-a-half-long history, including 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 America, and honorary fellowships from six international college of surgeons.
He was named the Charles R. Drew Professor in 1992, occupying the first endowed chair in the history of Howard’s Department of Surgery.
He was chair, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (now Susan G. Komen for the Cure) from 2002-2007, 2011-2012 and chair, President’s Cancer Panel 2002-2011.
In 2011, he received the W. Montague Cobb Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Medical Association. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he received the Commander’s Award for Public Service as the Principal Civilian Consultant to the General Surgery Service for 30 years – 1970-2000.
The great heights reached by Dr. Leffall 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 encouraging others 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.
I will always cherish that the first procedure that I conducted as a fully accredited surgeon at Howard University was alongside Dr. Leffall in what was ultimately his final operation before retirement, a symbolic transition that I recall more poignantly as I pen this message.
Even after retiring from performing surgery, he remained on the faculty as a lecturer and resource at Howard University.
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 long-standing donor who created opportunities for subsequent generations of students through his generosity.
I 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 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.
The Howard University community extends its most sincere sympathies to Dr. Leffall’s wife, Ruth, Dr. Leffall’s son, LaSalle Leffall, III also known as “Donney,” his sister Dolores C. Leffall, their family, friends, his staff, and mentees. We will keep them all in our hearts during this difficult time. Formal arrangements will be shared once they are finalized.
Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D, MBA, is president of Howard University.