LaSalle Leffall Jr., 89, Dies; Cancer Society’s First Black Leader – Smart Media Magazine

LaSalle Leffall Jr., 89, Dies; Cancer Society’s First Black Leader


Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., a surgeon and educator who as the first black president of the American Cancer Society was a leader in promoting awareness of the risks of cancer, particularly among African-Americans, died on May 25 in Washington. He was 89.

His son, LaSalle Leffall III, said Dr. Leffall himself died of cancer at a hospital.

A son of the small-town, segregated Florida Panhandle, Dr. Leffall was also the first black president of the American College of Surgeons in 1979 and the first black person to head the Society of Surgical Oncology and the Society of Surgical Chairs.

In 2002, President George W. Bush appointed him chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel, an influential advisory role that he held until 2011. He also served as chairman of Susan G. Komen, the breast cancer foundation.

As president of the American Cancer Society, beginning in 1978, Dr. Leffall launched a campaign 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 — diseases attributed in part to social and environmental factors, like insufficient access to health care and exposure to industrial carcinogens.

LaSalle Doheny Leffall Jr. was born on May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, Fla. His father taught agriculture at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College (now University) and was later a high school principal. His mother, Martha (Jordan) Leffall, was also an educator. He was raised in nearby Quincy.

“With a good education and hard work, combined with honesty and integrity, there are no boundaries,” Dr. Leffall recalled his father telling him. To which his son would respond skeptically, “You shouldn’t be saying that, because look, I see things,” like local movie theaters that either barred black people or forced them to sit in balconies.

In 1956 he married Ruth McWilliams, who survives him, along with their son, who goes by Donney, and Dr. Leffall’s sister, Dolores C. Leffall.

Before being deployed overseas with the Army Medical Corps, Dr. Leffall was assigned to Texas, where he and three white fellow soldiers went to the movies one day. An attendant refused to admit him.

“Of all the things I have experienced, I think that hurt worse than anything else,” he recalled in a 2013 interview with the American College of Surgeons. “Here I am, on my way to help the men and women who are defending our country, and I can’t go to a movie with my colleagues.”

He was discharged as a major after serving as chief of general surgery at the Army hospital in Munich.

He was named a full professor at Howard in 1970. In 1992, he was appointed Charles R. Drew professor of surgery, a position named for a pioneering black surgeon. In 1996, Howard established a professorship in Dr. Leffall’s name. He wrote a memoir, “No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeon’s Odyssey,” in 2005.

An avid tennis player and jazz enthusiast (he was a friend of the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley), Dr. Leffall was also a language maven. He was quoted in William Safire’s New York Times column in 2001 distinguishing between an operation, a procedure and surgery.

“Every operation is a procedure, but not every procedure is an operation,” Dr. Leffall said. “You can say ‘a surgical procedure,’ but it would be redundant to say ‘a surgical operation.’ ”



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