ASCO Remembers Health Equity Champion Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr.

Jun 05, 2019

ASCO and the oncology community mourn the passing of LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., MD, a brilliant surgeon, oncologist, educator, civic leader, and health disparities pioneer. Dr. Leffall passed away from cancer on May 25, 2019, at the age of 89.

Following a period of service in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, his storied career was spent at Howard University, which he joined in 1962 as an assistant professor. A mere 8 years later, he became the chair of the Department of Surgery, a position he held for 25 years. He was named the Charles R. Drew Professor in 1992, occupying the first endowed chair in Howard’s Department of Surgery. After retiring from surgical and medical practice, he remained on the faculty as a lecturer. Dr. Leffall was a pillar of the Howard community, winning the prestigious Honored Faculty Award during the College of Medicine’s Honors and Oath ceremony more than 30 times.

Dr. Leffall was the first African American to serve as national president of the American Cancer Society, the Society of Surgical Oncology, the Society of Surgical Chairmen, and the American College of Surgeons. He served as chair of the President's Cancer Panel from 2002 to 2011; Dr. Leffall also served as chair of the Board of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

As a civic leader, Dr. Leffall worked to increase awareness of cancer risks, particularly among black populations. In 1979, as president of the American Cancer Society, Dr. Leffall focused attention on the increasing incidence and mortality of cancer among black Americans, and the implications for other racial and ethnic minority populations. He created an innovative program to promote early diagnosis and other preventive measures to reduce the higher rates of lung, stomach, pancreatic, and esophagus cancer among black men and uterine cancer among black women, the first program of this type in the nation. Today, health disparities are a significant field of study and a major priority for cancer programs around the world; just days after Dr. Leffall’s passing, a health disparities study was presented and discussed at the Plenary Session of the 2019 ASCO Annual Meeting.

An ASCO member, Dr. Leffall served on the Board of Directors of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, from 2003-2004.

He was born in 1930 in Tallahassee, Florida. He graduated from high school at 15 and completed his undergraduate degree at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Florida A&M University) in 1948, where he graduated summa cum laude. He graduated first in his class at Howard University College of Medicine, and completed surgical training at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital) and surgical oncology training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He was a veteran, serving as chief of general surgery at the U. S. Army Hospital in Munich, Germany; in 1961, he was honorably discharged, having achieved the rank of major.

He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, with multiple fellowships named in his honor. In addition to his prolific academic publications, Dr. Leffall authored an autobiography, No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon's Odyssey, which was published in 2005.

In a 2013 interview with The ASCO Post, Dr. Leffall explained that his ultimate hope was to see the complete eradication of cancer. He is quoted as saying, “With ongoing basic and clinical research, we will continue to make progress that could eventually lead to a universal cure for cancer. When that happens, I’ll applaud from Heaven.”

Dr. Leffall is survived by his wife, Ruth, their son, and his sister.

Read ASCO member Dr. Edith P. Mitchell's tribute to Dr. Leffall in The Cancer Letter, and his obituary in the New York Times.

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