Former Komen Board Chair’s major impact on healthcare disparities
From the age of nine, LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., knew he wanted to be a doctor. The inspiration? A wounded bird that he nursed back to health. In September 1945, at the age of 15, he enrolled in the pre-med program at Florida A&M, Florida’s only state-supported, historically black college. Three short years later, Leffall entered Howard University’s College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and graduated in 1952 at the top of his class. Dr. Leffall’s medical training continued with an internship in St. Louis, residency in Washington, D.C., and a surgical fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He returned to Howard University in 1962 as a faculty member and went on to serve as Acting Dean of the Medical School and Chairman of the Department of Surgery.
Surgery was his calling; he was drawn to the precision, decisiveness, and efficiency of the specialty. Dr. Leffall’s mentors influenced his decision to further specialize in surgical oncology and pursue the fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. A turning point in his career, it led him back to Howard where he was able to pursue his talents as a cancer surgeon and teacher. Leffall has devoted much of his professional life to the study of cancer, particularly as it affects African Americans. He and his colleagues at Howard authored some of the early papers on disparities in cancer outcomes, including an important article in 1973 that brought to light the alarming increase in cancer mortality in black Americans.
Through various leadership positions, Dr. Leffall has helped shape the U.S. cancer agenda and create programs to address healthcare disparities. He was the first African American president of the American Cancer Society, the Society of Surgical Oncologists, and the American College of Surgeons, and a founding member of the National Dialogue on Cancer (now C-Change). In 2002, President George W. Bush appointed Dr. Leffall to chair the President’s Cancer Panel, a three-member group that monitors national cancer programs and reports on progress and obstacles to cancer control. In 2010, Susan G. Komen for the Cure honored Dr. Leffall, who is also a former board chair of Komen for the Cure, for his pioneering work and leadership in cancer health disparities.
One of Dr. Leffall’s enduring contributions has been to train future generations of doctors. During his career at Howard University, he taught an estimated 5,000 medical students and helped train nearly 300 surgical residents. He quotes Henry Adams as he reflects on his love of teaching, “A teacher affects an eternity.” No doubt, Dr. Leffall’s influence as a mentor and clinician will extend for generations to come.