The Department of Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine has a longstanding history of leading the charge in health care equity and diversity. Despite segregation policies that remained in effect until the mid-1950s throughout St. Louis, leaders within the Department of Surgery—including its first full-time chairman, Evarts A. Graham, MD—played an integral role in enhancing the educational training opportunities among Black medical trainees at the city’s only hospital for Black patients and physicians, Homer G. Phillips Hospital.
One of Homer G. Phillips Hospital’s outstanding trainees from that era was LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., MD, FACS. After completing a surgical internship in 1953, Leffall went on to become a renowned surgeon, oncologist, medical educator, and patient advocate who had a longstanding career at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He became the first Black president of the American College of Surgeons, American Cancer Society, the Society of Surgical Chairs, and several other professional organizations.
Born in 1930 as the child of Floridan educators (his mother was an elementary school teacher and his father a high school principal), Leffall also developed a lifelong passion for learning. After graduating from high school his class’s valedictorian at age 15, he continued his education at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Florida A&M University) and went on to study medicine at Howard University in Washington D.C. at age 18.
After graduating medical school in 1952, Leffall realized there were minimal opportunities for a Black man like him to expand his medical training. At the time, there were only a handful of institutions that accepted Black trainees into their education programs. These included Harlem Hospital in New York, George W. Hubbard Hospital in Nashville, and Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
“I initially applied to Detroit Receiving [Hospital] and was turned down. I thought since I was ranked first in my class that I would get in,” he recalled during an oral history interview conducted by TheHistoryMakers. “Some people told me, ‘Well, you know, you’re still Black,’ and it was 1952, so I didn’t get in.”
Having just spent four years in medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Leffall hoped to gain a different perspective and train at another institution. In the fall of 1952, with this goal in mind and an acceptance letter to become a surgical intern at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, 22-year-old Leffall headed to St. Louis.
“It was one of the most wonderful experiences I could have had in terms of teaching and in terms of the great variety of cases.”LaSalle Leffall, Jr., MD, FACS, on his time at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis.
During his year-long internship at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, Leffall’s training experience and exposure to surgical education was strengthened by the support of his “wonderful teachers,” William H. Sinkler, MD, Medical Director of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, and Carl A. Moyer, MD, the chair of Washington University’s Department of Surgery.
Sinkler, a Howard alum like Leffall, strived to give minority physicians access to the best training available. Sinkler collaborated directly with Moyer, who cared deeply about the level of patient care, surgical training and medical education received by minority physicians at Homer G. Phillips. The duo played an integral role in the early years of his surgical education training.
“At the height of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, fifty percent of all Black graduates from medical schools in the United States came through Homer G. Phillips Hospital,” says Timothy Eberlein, MD, the William K. Bixby Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery.
Prior to his passing, Leffall returned to St. Louis and joined Eberlein on a trip to the site of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which shuttered operations in 1979.
“You have to realize that this was one of only four places in America where a Black surgeon could be trained,” Leffall said when they arrived. Leffall’s statement, Eberlein recalled, embodied the profound impact the Hospital played in not only Leffall’s life, but in the lives of other Black physicians who trained within its walls.
After completing his internship at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1953, Leffall returned to Washington D.C. and finished Howard University’s surgical residency at Freedmen’s Hospital and D.C. General Hospital in 1955. He was accepted as one of the first black surgical oncology fellows at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. In this chapter of his educational journey, he specialized in colon and rectal, breast, and head and neck cancers. He finished the two-year fellowship program before serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Munich, Germany.
In 1962, Leffall returned to Howard University as a faculty member to concentrate on his academic career in surgical oncology. He quickly rose to the ranks from assistant professor of surgery to his advancement to chairman in 1970 and held this position for over 25 years. Over the course of his academic career, he is credited with teaching over 6,000 medical school graduates and over 250 surgical residents. His academic repertoire also includes more than 150 publications, several books, visiting professorships at more than 200 institutions, 20 honorary degrees from American universities and six honorary fellowships from international colleges of surgeons.
Aside from education, one of Leffall’s greatest passions was ensuring that cancer patients, regardless of race or creed, had access to quality care. In 1979, during his tenure as president of the American Cancer Society, he created a program focused on the increasing incidence and mortality of cancer among Black Americans. The first of its kind in the nation, this program placed immense importance on efforts to advance health care equity and eliminate cancer disparities throughout the country.
“Leffall’s decision to set the American Cancer Society’s focus on cancer disparities among Black Americans set the stage for specific efforts, such as Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center’s Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities, to come into existence,” says Eberlein. “Though his time training in St. Louis was brief, the echoes of his impact on the field of surgical oncology and health equity continue to reverberate.”