Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall
Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall (Courtesy of nih.gov)

Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, an oncologist, medical educator and surgical pioneer at Howard University who became the first African American to serve as national president of the American Cancer Society, died Sunday. He was 89.

“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,” Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick, a fellow surgeon and longtime colleague of Leffall, said in a statement. “He was a surgeon par excellence, oncologist, medical educator, civic leader and mentor, to me and so many others.”

Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick (left) and Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall (Courtesy of howard.edu)
Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick (left) and Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall (Courtesy of howard.edu)

Born on May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, Florida, Leffall graduated 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, according to Frederick’s statement. 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).

After joining the faculty at the Howard University Medical School in 1962 as an assistant professor, Leffall became chairman of the Department of Surgery eight years later, a position he held for 25 years.

Leffall was also the first African-American president of several 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.

Leffall was still making rounds and lectures long after his retirement. During his 85th birthday, when faculty and residents surprised him with a cake, Leffall stood in the auditorium at Howard University Hospital, where he lectured surgical residents about remaining calm when they encounter tense moments in the operating room. He quoted from “Aequanimitas: A Biographical Note,” which was written by medical pioneer Sir William Osler.

“Equanimity under duress,” said Leffall, adding that one of the best attributes of a surgeon is the ability to “maintain that degree of calmness and tranquility because that will allow you to do what is appropriate in any circumstance.”

Memorial services will take placeTuesday, June 25 at 10 a.m.at the Washington National Cathedral (3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20016). Parking at the Cathedral is limited. Shuttle bus service will be provided from the main campus beginning at 8:30 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. Endowed Scholarship Fund, established in his honor, to benefit students at the Howard University College of Medicine.

For more information, go to https://giving.howard.edu/leffall.

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Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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