Intended for healthcare professionals


LaSalle Leffall: groundbreaking American surgeon and educator

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 25 June 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l4342
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. Washington, DC, USA
  1. bobroehr{at}
Picture credit: LaSalle Leffall/NLM/NIM

Racism was a fact of life in the southern US in the mid-20th century. There were stores downtown that you knew you couldn’t go in as a black person, LaSalle Leffall recounted in an oral history interview with the US Library of Congress.1 Public accommodations such as drinking fountains and bus waiting rooms were clearly labelled for either “white” or “colored” people.

But Leffall never let that impede his advancement. He became a noted cancer surgeon and educator, the first African-American president of the American Cancer Society, and the first to lead the American College of Surgeons, among many other firsts throughout his career.


Still, he began life with several advantages. His father had graduated from college at a time when less than 5% of Americans had access to higher education; for minorities the number was smaller still. His father, LaSalle Doheny Leffall Sr, was principal of the blacks-only high school in the town of Quincy, near Tallahassee, Florida. That position ensured the family largely avoided the direct ravages of the Great Depression.

“With a good education and hard work, combined with honesty and integrity, there are no boundaries,” his father would tell young LaSalle. And the lad took that to heart, graduating from high school …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription