Dr. LaSalle Leffall’s medical legacy lives in those he saved and changed
He worked at Howard University for a third of the school’s 150-year history
Long before he became president of Howard University, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick was a young surgeon in need of mentoring, and on many occasions he relied on Dr. LaSalle Leffall.
Leffall, a gifted surgeon, oncologist, medical educator and humanitarian, died May 25 at age 89, and he is now being remembered as one who trained generations of surgeons across the country and as a man who went beyond anatomy labs, operating room suites and scrub suites to cement a lasting legacy in the hearts of those he trained.
“I will always cherish that the first procedure that I conducted as a fully accredited surgeon at Howard University was alongside Dr. Leffall in what was ultimately his final operation before retirement,” said Frederick. “Last Tuesday I was back in the OR for the first time since his death, and I thought of him.”
In the same way people look up to NBA stars, the medical professionals who come from Howard University are admired, and many display that swag as they sport their scrubs and crisp lab coats to save lives.
“The bigger the stakes, the larger he became,” Frederick told The Undefeated. “He would read additional books the night before. He was prepared. Then he got to the operating room very early. He did lots of things before they were common practice in surgery, like taking time out to check the charts, look at the mammogram one more time and making sure everyone was prepared.”
Frederick said Leffall’s towering intellect made each interaction with others edifying. “In one moment, he might correct your grammar before pivoting to discuss some complex idea or concept. Dr. Leffall might even share a few thoughts in German, given his fluency in the language. The breadth of his academic pursuits was nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
In an open letter to the Howard University community, Frederick said: “The great heights reached by Dr. Leffall never kept him from being accessible to students, patients, and staff in a manner that was marked by unconditional love and selflessness. He was a good listener, slow to give or take offense, and always encouraging others to find the broader lesson in seemingly quotidian situations.”
Leffall worked at Howard for a third of the school’s 150-year history, and during his tenure he earned the honored faculty award during the College of Medicine’s Honors and Oath ceremony more than 30 times. He had more than 150 publications, three books and visiting professorships at more than 200 institutions internationally. He had 14 honorary degrees from universities in America and honorary fellowships from six international colleges of surgeons. He was named the Charles R. Drew Professor in 1992, occupying the first endowed chair in the history of Howard’s Department of Surgery.
Born on May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, Florida, Leffall completed high school at age 15. He then went on to Florida A&M, graduating summa cum laude in 1948. He was accepted to the Howard University College of Medicine and graduated first in his class. He completed his surgical training at Freedmen’s Hospital, now Howard University Hospital, in 1957, and then he went on to surgical oncology training at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (1957-59).
He joined the faculty at the Howard University Medical School in 1962 as an assistant professor. Eight years later he became chairman of the Department of Surgery, a position he held for 25 years.
Leffall was also the first African American president of several national organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the Society of Surgical Oncology, the Society of Surgical Chairmen and the American College of Surgeons. He lectured at more than 200 medical institutions across the country, taught more than 6,000 medical students and trained more than 300 surgical residents.
He was still making rounds and lectures long after his retirement. During his 85th birthday party, faculty and residents surprised him with a cake. It was in this same auditorium at Howard University Hospital where he lectured surgical residents about remaining calm when they encounter tense moments in the operating room.
He used that moment to set the record straight on the legendary story of how Dr. Charles Drew died in a hospital because he received poor care because of the color of his skin after he had a car accident on his way to a surgical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. In a 2015 interview that was recorded on YouTube, Leffall said: “Dr. Drew received the best care that could be given, but he died because of the severity of his injuries. We do a disservice to the people in that predominantly white hospital that gave Dr. Drew treatment.”
Dr. Eddie Cornwell, chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Howard University College of Medicine, said, “Dr. Leffall combined old-fashioned values: hard work, discipline, collegiality, integrity and intelligence with gracious elegance that is unsurpassed.”
Cornwell said medical students know the story they were told by Leffall about the death of Drew on April 1, 1950, but more than that he passed on one of Drew’s favorite sayings: “Excellence of performance will transcend artificial barriers created by men.”
In the same way Tom Brady executes a two-minute drill for the New England Patriots, or Michael Jordan came through when the game was on the line, Leffall, quoting medical pioneer Sir William Osler, said that “a surgeon must maintain that degree of calmness and tranquility because that will allow you to do what is appropriate in any circumstance.”
“I will continue to live in Dr. Leffall’s honor and his example,” Frederick said of Leffall’s teachings. “It’s humbling because at the end of the day, you know what is most important.”