LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., a Howard University cancer specialist who chaired the medical school’s department of surgery for 25 years and became the first African American president of the American Cancer Society and other medical organizations, died May 25 at a hospital in Washington. He was 89.
The cause was cancer, said his son, LaSalle D. Leffall III.
In more than 50 years on medical teaching staff at Howard, Dr. Leffall trained more than 6,000 future physicians and more than 300 surgical residents. “He was a mentor to me and so many others,” Wayne A.I. Frederick, one of his former medical students and the current president of Howard University, said in a statement.
As national chief of the American Cancer Society in 1979, he held a position of influence in the guidance of millions of federal dollars for cancer research and treatments. He focused special attention on an increasing incidence of cancer mortality among blacks, especially cancers of the head, neck, breast and colorectum.
Dr. Leffall was also the first African American president of the American College of Surgeons, the Society of Surgical Oncology and the Society of Surgical Chairmen.
In 2002, Dr. Leffall was appointed a member and then chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel, which advises the White House on cancer research and support programs. He had served as board chairman of what is now Susan G. Komen, a foundation supporting breast cancer research.
He had been on the medical staff at Howard since 1962, but stopped doing surgeries when he was in his 70s. In addition to a “piercing, stentorian voice,” The Washington Post once wrote of him, he cut a striking figure around the corridors of the institution: “tall and broad like one of his heroes, Muhammad Ali, with a handsome smile that breaks frequently over a boxy face.”
He had a private medical practice in addition to his research and teaching. Vernon Jordan, a Washington lawyer and former president of the National Urban League, was among his patients.
In 1980, when Jordan was wounded in a racially linked shooting in Fort Wayne, Ind., Dr. Leffall was on the first plane he could get to Indiana, Jordan said.
The two men were friends of 50-years standing, sometime opponents across a tennis net, and regular luncheon companions. “He’s living proof that friendship is the medicine of life,” Jordan said.
LaSalle Doheny Leffall Jr. was born in Tallahassee on May 22, 1930, and grew up in Quincy, Fla. His father, one of 11 children from Texas, was principal of a racially segregated high school.
“There was nothing unusual, I would say, about my growing up, except the fact that it was a segregated South,” Dr. Leffall told an oral history project of the National Library of Medicine. “If we went to the white movie theater, we always sat in the balcony. At a very young age, you found out when you went downtown and your mother said, ‘You can’t go in there.’ You knew at a very young age, I don’t know, 3, 4, maybe 5 . . . you would ask questions about why. They would say, ‘Well, this is not right, but that’s the way it is.’ ”
He graduated summa cum laude in 1948 from what is now Florida A&M University, a historically black university in Tallahassee, and was first in his Class of 1952 at Howard medical school.
Early in his career, he did surgical training at what then was Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, completed a surgical oncology fellowship at what is now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, served as an Army doctor in Germany.
In 1992, he was named Howard’s first Charles R. Drew professor, named after a pioneering African American surgeon, and in 1996, Howard established a chair in surgery in Dr. Leffall’s honor. His memoir, “No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon’s Odyssey,” was published in 2005.
In 1956, he married Ruth McWilliams. In addition to his wife and son, both of Washington, survivors include a sister.
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