Dr. and Mrs. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr.: Paying it forward

LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., MD, FACS, Past-President of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) and the Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery at Howard University Medical Center, Washington, DC, did not spend his 85th birthday in May 2015 engaged in typical celebratory activities.1 Rather, he gave a presentation on coping skills for tense situations in the operating room to surgical residents at Howard University.

But then, Dr. Leffall’s remarkable contributions to the surgical profession and medical community are far from typical. He continues to serve as an educator and mentor, modeling the role of the beloved teachers who had mentored him as a surgeon in training. In his ACS Presidential Address in 1995, Dr. Leffall paid homage to one of these early mentors, Burke Syphax, MD, FACS, who was in the audience that evening, approaching his own 85th birthday at the time.2 No doubt, the wisdom of Dr. Leffall’s mentors, such as Dr. Syphax, combined with his own lessons learned, was passed on to the eager surgical residents in that lecture hall. It is one example of how “paying it forward” has been a guiding principle throughout Dr. Leffall’s career and life.

The ACS Foundation proudly highlights Dr. Leffall and his wife, Ruth M. Leffall, as Mayne Heritage Society (MHS) members. The MHS recognizes Fellows who have provided a bequest or other “planned” gift of any size to the College through their estate plan.

Early interest in medicine

Born May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, FL, to two school principals, Dr. Leffall had early exposure to a love of education. “I’ll never forget what my father told me as a child: ‘With a good education and hard work combined with honesty and integrity, there are no boundaries,’” Dr. Leffall said in a video interview with the College in 2013. “That really meant something to me, especially growing up in Quincy, FL, when segregation was still in force.”3

Inspired by a family friend who, according to Dr. Leffall, was the lone African-American physician in Quincy, Dr. Leffall was interested in pursuing a career in medicine from the time he was in elementary school. He recalled that his first patient was an injured bird, and he fell in love with healing when he mended its wing back into full, airborne recovery.3

At the young age of 18, Dr. Leffall graduated summa cum laude from Florida A&M College, Tallahassee, with a bachelor degree in biology and English. In 1952, he received a doctor of medicine degree from Howard University College of Medicine, graduating first in his class.

Dr. Leffall (center) talks with residents outside the operating room before surgery. From left (all MD): Cecil Aird; Halstead Howell; Clarence Greene, Jr.; and John Hibbert. (Reprinted with permission from Dr. Leffall’s autobiography, No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon’s Odyssey [Washington, DC: Howard University Press; 2005.])

Dr. Leffall (center) talks with residents outside the operating room before surgery. From left (all MD): Cecil Aird; Halstead Howell; Clarence Greene, Jr.; and John Hibbert. (Reprinted with permission from Dr. Leffall’s autobiography, No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon’s Odyssey [Washington, DC: Howard University Press; 2005.])

Remarkable career

After completing his internship at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, St. Louis, MO, and surgical residency at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), Washington, DC, Dr. Leffall did a surgical oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY, from 1957 to 1959. Dr. Leffall then began his military career as Captain, U.S. Army Medical Corps, serving as Chief of General Surgery, U.S. Army Hospital, Munich, Germany, 1960–1961.

His membership with Howard University’s faculty began in 1962, and he progressed to professor and chairman, department of surgery, in 1970—a position he held for 25 years. In 1992, Dr. Leffall was named Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery—Howard University’s first endowed chair in surgery. Numerous awards and accolades bear his name, including The LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Surgical Society and the Leffall Chair of Surgery at Howard University. The Biennial LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Cancer Prevention and Control Award is sponsored by the Intercultural Cancer Council, Nashville, TN, and the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX.

His life as a surgeon has been focused on the study of cancer and scholarly research. Through his work with the American Cancer Society, Dr. Leffall launched a nationwide initiative to address the increasing incidence of and mortality from cancer among African Americans. Widely regarded as a subject matter expert in surgical oncology, he has served as visiting professor and guest lecturer at more than 200 medical institutions in the U.S. and abroad, while authoring or coauthoring more than 150 articles and book chapters. Although he is officially retired from surgery after a 60-year career, Dr. Leffall still gets to the office at Howard University Medical Center by 6:00 am to teach the next generation of surgeons. “My philosophy is that as long as you have your health and you enjoy what you do, then you should continue,” Dr. Leffall said.1

Having taught approximately 6,000 medical students and trained 280 general surgery residents, Dr. Leffall has become one of the most beloved mentors of his generation. The many young men and women who have studied under his tutelage have gone on to successful surgical careers. They are now most likely “paying forward” the guidance they took from Dr. Leffall to their own mentees.

At a Howard University luncheon in celebration of Dr. Leffall’s 85th birthday, Edward E. Cornwell III, MD, FACS, FCCM, ACS Secretary and the LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., Professor and Chairman of Surgery at Howard University, thanked Dr. Leffall for his guidance and friendship. “There is always a quote you live by; mine is equanimity under duress, which Dr. Leffall has exemplified and I’ve subscribed to,” Dr. Cornwell said at the luncheon.4

Legacy of leadership

Throughout his career as a surgeon, Dr. Leffall has exemplified a selfless dedication not only to the profession but also to the service of others. He has served at the highest levels in many professional and public service organizations. He was the first African-American President of the ACS, American Cancer Society, Society of Surgical Oncology, Society of Surgical Chairmen, and Washington Academy of Surgery. He is also a past-president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons; chair, President’s Cancer Panel; and past-chair, Surgical Section, National Medical Association.

Speaking on Dr. Leffall’s breakthrough career, Dr. Cornwell said, “Dr. Leffall is the living link for modern-day surgeons and medical pioneers like Dr. Drew, a medical pioneer whose research with blood transfusion helped to develop blood bank technology around the world.”1

Dr. Leffall’s tireless efforts on behalf of the ACS Foundation and the College have demonstrated the type of philanthropic spirit that can serve as an example to ACS Fellows. He served on the Committee on Development—the predecessor to the ACS Foundation—and as Chair of the Fellows Leadership Society, the ACS Foundation’s major gift society.

Dr. and Mrs. Leffall have established a significant planned gift through the ACS Foundation as members of the MHS. Dr. Leffall has been an advocate for the ACS Foundation, resulting in generous contributions from a charitable private foundation to fund ACS education programs. For their leadership in philanthropy and service to the medical community, the couple was named the ACS Distinguished Philanthropist of the Year in 1998.

Dr. and Mrs. Leffall in 1994, when Dr. Leffall was elected ACS President.

Dr. and Mrs. Leffall in 1994, when Dr. Leffall was elected ACS President.

As loyal donors to the College and many other worthy causes, Dr. and Mrs. Leffall will continue to inspire the next generation of students. Together with Dr. Leffall’s sister, in honor of their parents they established the Martha J. and LaSalle D. Leffall, Sr., Endowed Scholarship Fund and Endowed Professorship in Science at Florida A&M University.

Dr. and Mrs. Leffall’s MHS commitment will support ACS scholarships. In his ACS Presidential Address, Dr. Leffall implored Fellows to contribute to the ACS Foundation. “Support for funding scholarships, fellowships, and research career development awards can pay handsome dividends that may have enormous benefits for improved patient care,” he said.2

In an e-mail communication on January 12, 2016, with the author, Dr. Leffall commented, “My wife and I are pleased to support an organization that has meant so much to the surgical profession and patients. I have been a Fellow for more than 50 years and have seen such marvelous ACS initiatives established, such as the nationally recognized National Cancer Data Base. Supporting the College and my beloved profession is important to us…we want to help those who will become future leaders, just as those who came before me helped set me on a successful path.”

If you are interested in learning about how you can join Dr. and Mrs. Leffall in planning a future gift to the College, contact Shane Hollett, Executive Director, ACS Foundation, at 312-202-5506.



  1. Harris HR. Howard’s legendary LaSalle Leffall still going strong at 85. The Washington Post. May 19, 2015. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/05/19/howards-legendary-dr-lasalle-leffall-still-going-strong-at-85/. Accessed January 22, 2016.
  2. Leffall L. Reaffirmation of fealty—to serve all. Bull Am Coll Surg. 1995;80(12):11-21. Available at: facs.org/~/media/files/archives/leffall1995.ashx. Accessed January 8, 2016.
  3. American College of Surgeons. Oral history interview with Dr. LaSalle Leffall. YouTube.com. October 8, 2013. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpXMh_z5lmY. Accessed January 4, 2016.
  4. Howard University. Press release. May 20, 2015. Available at: www2.howard.edu/colleagues-surprise-dr-lasalle-leffall-85th-birthday-celebration. Accessed February 1, 2016.

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