LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. Biography (1930-)

African American
surgical oncologist

Surgical oncologist LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. has worked to focus attention onthe problem of high cancer death rates among minorities, especially African Americans. As the first black president of the American Cancer Society and asan educator at Howard University, Leffall has dedicated his career to educating both the medical profession and the lay public about cancer risks for minorities.

Leffall, the son of Martha (Jordan) Lefall and LaSalle Leffall, Sr., was bornin Tallahassee, Florida, on May 22, 1930. He attended public school and wasthe valedictorian of his high school class, graduating in 1945. In 1948, he received a B.S., summa cum laude, from Florida A & M University. From there, Leffall enrolled in Howard University College of Medicine. Again, he achieved academic excellence, graduating first in his class and receiving his in 1952. Leffall's formal medical education continued for the next seven years. He was an intern at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis and assistant resident in surgery at both D.C. General Hospital and Freedmen's Hospital, both in Washington, D.C. From 1957 to 1959, Leffall was a senior fellowin cancer surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Hedecided to study at Sloan-Kettering because of the new frontiers posed by cancer surgery, Leffall stated in an interview with Devera Pine for NotableTwentieth-Century Scientists. "I thought surgery was the most dynamic field," he recalled. "Memorial Sloan-Kettering was using some of the most exciting techniques."

After one year as Chief of General Surgery in the U.S. Army Hospital in Munich (1960 to 1961), Leffall turned to a career in education, becoming an assistant professor at Howard University in 1962. Leffall continued at Howard, serving as assistant dean of the College of Medicine from 1964 to 1970. In 1970,he was appointed professor and chair of the Department of Surgery. "I have avery strong feeling for Howard University. If I had not been accepted there,I wouldn't be a physician and surgeon today," he said in his interview. "WhenI came along in 1948, predominantly white medical schools rarely accepted blacks." As a researcher, Leffall has focused on clinical studies of cancer ofthe breast, colorectum, head and neck. He has published more than 116 articles in various professional journals and forums.

In addition to his careers in medicine and education, Leffall has led an active professional life. Leffall became a diplomate of the American Board of Surgery in 1958 and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1964. He wasa consultant to the National Cancer Institute beginning in 1972 and a consultant to Walter Reed Army Medical Center beginning in 1971. In 1978 he becamethe first black president of the American Cancer Society. He used this national forum to emphasize the problems of cancer in minorities , holding the first conference on cancer among black Americans in February of 1979. "I have tried to point out the problems of lack of access to care and the increased death rate," he told Pine. In 1980, President Carter appointed him to a six-yearterm as a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board.

Leffall has lectured extensively and has served as visiting professor at morethan 200 medical institutions. He has received many awards, including the St. George Medal and Citation, the highest divisional award of the American Cancer Society, and the Distinguished Volunteer Service Award from the Secretaryof the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 1987, M.D. AndersonHospital and Tumor Institute in Houston established the Biennial LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. Award. Though Leffall told Pine that he was grateful for all the awards, he said he considers the ones he received from his students over the years "first among equals." In fact, along with his medical career, Leffall considers his teaching one of his most important accomplishments. The role of ateacher, he said, is "to inspire, to instruct, to stimulate, to stretch theimagination and to expand the aspirations of others. It's an honor to be a teacher."

Leffall married Ruth McWilliams in 1956; the couple had one son.

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