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Vol. LIX, No. 3
February9, 2007
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‘Each One, Teach One’
Power of Mentoring, Inspiring Others Is Stressed at MLK Celebration

On the front page...

If it’s true that great leaders are not born, but made, then a wise course would be to inspire more “makers.” That was the path taken at NIH’s 2007 salute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Fulfilling the Promise, Living the Dream,” as speaker after speaker emphasized the impact you can have on someone you take under your wing.

“I think about the things that have happened to me and I often say I’ve had more than my share of life’s wonderful bounty,” said keynoter Dr. LaSalle Leffall of Howard University College of Medicine, “but that’s due to the great help I’ve had along the way. I’ve had a tremendous amount of help. Whatever I can do for others is really miniscule compared to what others have done for me. I value the role mentors have played in my life.”

Continued...


  Martin Luther King commemoration keynote speaker Dr. LaSalle Leffall (c) is welcomed to Masur Auditorium by CC director Dr. John Gallin (l) and NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni.  
  Martin Luther King commemoration keynote speaker Dr. LaSalle Leffall (c) is welcomed to Masur Auditorium by CC director Dr. John Gallin (l) and NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni.  

Considering his long list of achievements (first black president of the American Cancer Society, the Society of Surgical Oncology as well as the American College of Surgeons) over a 60-year career in medicine, Leffall seemed a natural choice to wax poetically about the merits of being a mentor. He approached the topic from the other side, however.

He recalled being a young student whose stellar aptitude for science and medicine was reflected in his grades, but not in his MCAT scores. Medical schools were turning down his applications until the president of his college, Florida A&M’s Dr. William Gray, made a phone call to Howard University. Soon after, he brought Leffall and another top-ranked student by train to the school’s Washington campus to meet with a medical school official.

Within days, the official, Dr. Joseph Johnson had decided to take a chance on Leffall and his buddy. They were accepted into Howard’s medical school. In 1952, Leffall earned his M.D., ranking first in his class.

“If Dr. Gray had not taken an interest in us, there’s a very good possibility that I wouldn’t be standing here as a physician,” said Leffall, who has since trained about 5,000 medical students and 260 surgical residents in his 46 years on Howard’s faculty.

NCI director Dr. John Niederhuber
(l), who has known Leffall (c) for more than 35 years in their professional capacities, introduced the guest speaker at the King program. NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington (r) also gave remarks during the occasion.
NCI director Dr. John Niederhuber (l), who has known Leffall (c) for more than 35 years in their professional capacities, introduced the guest speaker at the King program. NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington (r) also gave remarks during the occasion.

Leffall once asked Johnson why he took a chance on him, when there were others with outstanding MCAT scores as well as transcripts. Johnson explained that he had “seen something” in Leffall that told him he would succeed.

“Affirmative opportunity” is the way Leffall said he now defines the gift from Gray and Johnson. “Excellence of performance will transcend artificial barriers created by man,” he said, using a quote by another of his mentors, blood bank pioneer Dr. Charles Drew. “In our lives we must be willing to do that thing which is extra.”

In addition to honoring King, the program—sponsored by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management—paid special tribute to Vivien Thomas, a lab technician who became a pioneer of surgical techniques and instrumentation. NCI director Dr. John Niederhuber recounted the story of a bright young African-American man whose formal education had ended at high school. Thomas longed to attend college, but was thwarted by poverty in the Great Depression era. He managed to get a job as a lab assistant at Vanderbilt University with renowned surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock.

Gathered for a photo following the program are planners and participants (from l) NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management Director Lawrence Self, Kay Johnson Graham of OEO, emcee Dr. Marian Johnson Thompson of NIEHS, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Leffall, Niederhuber, CC director Dr. John Gallin and Kington.
Gathered for a photo following the program are planners and participants (from l) NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management Director Lawrence Self, Kay Johnson Graham of OEO, emcee Dr. Marian Johnson Thompson of NIEHS, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Leffall, Niederhuber, CC director Dr. John Gallin and Kington.

“Vivien didn’t just learn, he actually absorbed,” said Niederhuber. “Within a few months he was performing animal surgery like the veterans. He was working on groundbreaking research in hemorrhage and traumatic shock. More importantly, he and Blalock forged a partnership that lasted 34 years.”

In 1944 at Johns Hopkins University, Blalock became the first to perform surgery to correct a deadly heart problem that occurred in children. Thomas had developed the surgical technique and perfected it on animals. Seated on a stool at the young patient’s bedside, Thomas— at the surgeon’s request—coached Blalock step-by-step through the historic operation. In the subsequent medical literature introducing the procedure to surgeons nationwide, Thomas was never mentioned—a common oversight of African-American achievements attributed to racism of the times. Nevertheless, he continued to develop procedures and techniques, and to teach them to dozens of surgeons for the rest of his career.

After speaking, Leffall greets well-wishers who included long-time friend and colleague Dr. Vivian Pinn, NIH associate director for research on women’s health.

After speaking, Leffall greets well-wishers who included long-time friend and colleague Dr. Vivian Pinn, NIH associate director for research on women’s health.

“His contributions are today recognized and appreciated, and will, I hope, inspire some of today’s students that a career in medicine or biomedical research, an opportunity to serve others, is a calling they should follow,” Niederhuber concluded. “As someone who has spent his career in academic medicine, I cherish the memories of each person who has given me the gift of their time, of their attention, of each person who has taken it upon himself or herself to be a mentor.”

Reflecting too on his own upbringing and career, NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington said, “I have no doubt that I grew up in a better place because of Dr. King’s words, and his actions, and those of countless others who participated with him in changing this country’s shameful legacy of racism. There are many of you here today whose lives and work are also testaments to the extent to which Dr. King’s dreams are now being lived. Yet many of the problems present in his lifetime remain with us.”

Kington said closing persistent gaps in health continues to be one of NIH’s biggest challenges and a top priority. “Implicit in the celebration,” he said, “is a charge that we continue Dr. King’s work so that one day the reality of the world around us truly reflects the world that was his dream. We see all of our activities—but especially those in the areas of health disparities— as part of the agency’s response to Dr. King’s charge. Today we commit ourselves again to that charge.” NIH Record Icon

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