Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr.: A Surgeon, Educator & Leader with a Powerful Soul

Black History Month Power Profile by Nancy G. Brinker
February 2020

Some leaders are shaped by events, others shape events with their leadership. Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. was such a strong leader inside the medical community that he did both.

There is a lot we know about LaSalle. His remarkable career as a surgeon. His holding of the first endowed surgery chair at Howard University, named for the venerable initiator of blood banking Dr. Charles Drew. Some knew that he was a great tennis player and a lover of jazz music. And those of us who were fortunate to work side by side know that he had a deep, wise soul — that he made our lives better and indeed made this world a better place.

A son of the small-town, segregated Florida Panhandle, Dr. Leffall was also the first black president of the American College of Surgeons in 1979 and the first black person to head the Society of Surgical Oncology and the Society of Surgical Chairs. In 2002, President George W. Bush appointed him chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel, an influential advisory role that he held until 2011.

Personally, I got to know Dr. Leffall when he became Chair of the Board of the Komen Foundation in 1999 – a role he served in until 2007. It was a time of terrific growth both in fundraising and in serving the mission to eradicate breast cancer. He had a true gift for both; he understood Komen could not fulfill its mission without substantial funding. And he knew that substantial funding is worthless without clear scientific vision and guidance. He offered those gifts every day to all who walked into the Komen door and all to whom he spoke about the important work of curing cancer. As a surgeon he knew exactly how important it was. And as a loving human he knew exactly why.

Dr. Wayne Frederick, who studied under Dr. Leffall and became the president of Howard University, where Dr. Leffall chaired the medical college’s department of surgery for 25 years, described him in a statement as “a surgeon par excellence, oncologist, medical educator, civic leader and mentor, to me and so many others.”

Dr. Leffall, who began teaching at Howard in 1962, estimated that he had trained about
6,000 of Howard’s future physicians and hundreds of prospective surgeons. Many of them continue to make medical breakthroughs and save lives. As such, Dr. Leffall’s presence continues on in the talents of those he inspired.

We continue to miss LaSalle’s guidance, vision and leadership and celebrate his powerful contributions to the field each day.