Howard University celebrates legendary surgeon LaSalle Leffall's 80th birthday

Several hundred of Dr. LaSalle Leffall Jr.'s colleagues from the Howard University College of Medicine threw a surprise celebration for the doctor, who turns 80 on Friday.
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shortly after 6 a.m. Monday, LaSalle Leffall Jr. began making his rounds at Howard University Hospital. He stopped to grab his lab coat. He visited with two patients, made several quick consultations and then it was off to surgical grand rounds, where students talk about the most interesting cases of the week.

Getting up before sunrise and walking the corridors of Howard is a routine that Leffall has followed for six decades, first as a young medical resident and now as the Charles R. Drew professor of surgery at the university's College of Medicine. And it is that dedication to the hospital and his patients that led several hundred of Leffall's colleagues to throw a surprise celebration for the doctor, who turned 80 on Saturday.

Instead of looking at slides and listening to a lecture, Leffall found himself surrounded by the medical school's choir, in crisp lab coats, singing "Happy Birthday." In response, the silver-haired surgeon displayed a big smile, raised his arms in the air and came down the aisle of a lecture hall shaking hands all the way.

"They used to say that 70 is the new 60," said former D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, whose father, Charles Drew, was a pioneer in blood collection and also Leffall's instructor. But, she said, the doctor "has made 80 the new place to be. When I am in his presence, I feel like I am in the presence of my father."

Leffall, who graduated summa cum laude from Florida A&M University when he was 18, earned his medical degree from Howard. He was 22, first in his class and on his way to setting the first of many firsts.

He completed a surgical fellowship in oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 1959. From 1960 to 1961, was chief of general surgery at the U.S. Army Hospital in Munich, where he achieved the rank of major.

Leffall went on to become the first black president of the American Cancer Society, the first black chairman of the Society of Surgical Oncology and the first black head of the American College of Surgeons.

He has written or co-written more than 140 articles and chapters for books on surgical oncology. His most recent book, "No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon's Odyssey," was published in 2005.

Until four years ago, Leffall was still performing operations. According to a report released this month by the American College of Surgeons, of the 137,426 surgeons in the United States, approximately one-third are older than 55. But that statistic is meaningless to Leffall. "I never plan to retire," he said.

Among those who turned out to celebrate the surgeon, several said his greatest legacy may be the students he has instructed since joining Howard's faculty in 1962. It is estimated he has taught more than 5,000 medical students and 270 general surgeons. Leffall said someone once estimated that he had trained about two-thirds of all black surgeons in the country.

"I love what I do, and that is teaching students and seeing patients," he said.

Leffall said he will not stop trying to right a wrong. For years he has worked to correct an urban legend surrounding the death of Drew, who was injured in a car accident in 1950 while driving to a clinic in Tuskegee, Ala. According to folklore, Drew died because he did not receive proper medical care. While he was taken to a hospital that segregated blacks and whites, Leffall said, Drew was well cared for. His injuries were simply too severe.

"It would have been easy to say that Dr. Drew died because it was in the South in the 1950s, but integrity and honesty are so important," Leffall said. "That is why the statement of Dr. Drew is so important: Excellence of performance will transcend artificial barriers created by man."

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