Dr. Leonard Sperling Receives Helwig Award from the American Society of Dermatopathology

Leonard C. Sperling, distinguished professor of dermatology and pathology at the Uniformed Services University, vice Chair of Dermatology, and Sulzberger Chair of Dermatology, was honored with the Elson B. Helwig Memorial Lecture Award by the American Society of Dermatopathology for his significant contributions to the field, including his extensive work in hair disease and hair loss, and his dedicated mentorship and education of students and professionals.

A collage of photos of Dr. Leonard Sperling alongside physicians he has mentored over the years.
Leonard C. Sperling, M.D. was honored with the Elson B. Helwig Memorial Lecture Award by the American
Society of Dermatopathology. Pictured are some of the dozens of physicians Dr. Sperling has mentored at USU.
 (Photos courtesy of Dr. Leonard Sperling)

February 1, 2024 by Vivian Mason

Dr. Leonard C. Sperling (USU photo)
Dr. Leonard C. Sperling (USU photo)
Leonard C. Sperling, M.D., – distinguished professor of dermatology and pathology at the Uniformed Services University, vice Chair of Dermatology, and Sulzberger Chair of Dermatology – was named as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Elson B. Helwig Memorial Lecture Award given by the American Society of Dermatopathology. This honor will be presented to him at the 61st annual meeting of the Society in November.

Sperling will also have the honor of being the keynote speaker in recognition of his significant contributions to the dermatopathology literature, as well as the education and mentorship of fellows, colleagues, and students.  

“I was stunned, grateful, and incredibly honored,” Sperling says about receiving the award. “It’s given to a physician who has had a lasting impact on the field of dermatopathology. I was very flattered, of course, but surprised because the award recipients are internationally famous dermatopathologists, dermatologists, and pathologists.”

Despite his humility, Sperling’s career of more than 40 years speaks for itself. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He completed his dermatology residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and his first years after training were spent as chief of the Dermatology Service at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany. A few years later, Sperling completed a dermatopathology fellowship at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). “I trained at AFIP, where I was one of the many dermatopathology fellows who took advantage of a program first established by Dr. Helwig.”

Dr. Elson Helwig was a prominent gastrointestinal pathologist at AFIP, but also had an interest in skin pathology. At that time, there was no society devoted to the specialty of skin nor were there any formal training programs. Helwig would meet annually with colleagues who were interested in the subject, and eventually a dozen of them decided to start a specialty society called the American Society of Dermatopathology. Remarks Sperling, “Fortunately for me, Dr. Helwig was still teaching when I attended AFIP. He was a superb educator, and we all benefited from his vast experience and expertise.” 

Sperling joined USU in 1988 as assistant professor of dermatology and progressed to full professor of dermatology and pathology by 1997. In 2007, he also became professor of health, injury, and disease management in the Graduate School of Nursing—a position awarded to him because of all his efforts teaching the nurse practitioner students. Over the years, Sperling has also been an instructor for various USU School of Medicine courses, including pathology, pharmacology, preventive medicine, and microbiology.

From 1996 to 2014, he was department chair of dermatology at USU, but stepped down and remained vice chair. He continues his work as a dedicated teacher of medical students, nursing students, residents, and fellows, as well as the important role of chair of the School of Medicine’s Admissions Committee, a position he has held since 2015.

Sperling has also made a tremendous impact to the understanding and diagnosis of alopecia thanks to his many publications, his frequent speaking engagements, his mentorship of many students, and his textbook on hair pathology that has served as a touchstone for those studying or diagnosing alopecia. 

“I’ve been a dermatopathologist for more than 30 years. However, my little niche in skin pathology is the study of hair disease/hair loss,” he notes. “I wrote the first textbook devoted to hair pathology in 2001. A couple of colleagues who I had once mentored joined me in writing the second edition in 2012.”  

Sperling is also the author of An Atlas of Hair Pathology with Clinical Correlations. This pioneering book addresses the clinicopathological diagnosis of diseases that result in alopecia, and it provides a detailed guide to the histopathological criteria that aid pathologists in establishing the diagnosis of all types of alopecia.

The subject of alopecia (hair loss) became important to Dr. Sperling in 1997, when he joined the teaching staff of the residency program at Walter Reed. “Many times, the residents I supervised would come to me with patients who had hair loss problems. I felt inadequate when they approached me with questions about diagnosis and treatment.” 

Sperling says he began reading the literature that was available because he felt that something was missing in his training. But, actually, he hadn't missed anything. He remarks, “I felt like that because there just wasn’t much good or useful information out there written on the subject. As a side benefit to my efforts to learn more, I obtained enough information to eventually publish articles about what I had discovered.”

One of the first articles he wrote was simply on the anatomy of the hair follicle and how it applied to the field of dermatology. “That particular article was a very big hit,” says Sperling. “Dermatologists had never seen anything quite like it, and they finally had a good reference for basic hair anatomy and its clinical application.”

Because of that article and the efforts of his mentors, Sperling was invited as a speaker to national meetings and other residency programs. “So, I began developing a reputation in hair loss. Because of that, I got an increasing number of referrals for patients with hair disease, and that allowed me to develop more expertise. The more expertise I got, the more I published. It became my niche in academic medicine.” 

The increased expertise allowed Sperling to successfully treat those special patients. “Many times,” he says, “hair loss patients are treated as though they have a trivial problem or they’re treated inappropriately. These patients are often distraught, and it’s our job as physicians to help them. It’s been great discovering new things, writing articles, and giving talks. But being able to help these patients has been very satisfying.”

Sperling's pioneering book An Atlas of Hair Pathology with Clinical Correlations. It addresses the clinicopathological diagnosis of diseases that result in alopecia. (Courtesy of Dr. Sperling)
Sperling's pioneering book An Atlas of Hair
Pathology with Clinical Correlations. It addresses
the clinicopathological diagnosis of diseases that
result in alopecia. (Courtesy of Dr. Sperling)
Sperling has published over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, written 2 textbooks, contributed to more than 21 textbook chapters, participated in more than 173 formal extramural presentations, and assisted or directed more than 10 research protocols. He has been on the faculty of national meetings every year for the past 25 years. He’s still found time to be a peer reviewer for several journals.

Sperling has been on the teaching staff of the dermatology residency program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) from 1987 to the present, where he staffs clinics at least weekly. There, he supervises residents, medical students, and dermatopathology fellows in their care of patients. Every year, he’s found time to conduct numerous formal and informal lectures and demonstrations for residents, staff, and students assigned to the Dermatology Service at WRNMMC.

He was the founder and first program director of the dermatopathology fellowship for the National Capital Consortium. With pride, Sperling proclaims, “Since starting the fellowship, all fellows have passed the certifying exam, which is recognized as a specialty by the American boards of both dermatology and pathology.” He also held the position of chief of the Dermatology Service at Walson Army Hospital at Fort Dix.

Sperling received various military awards throughout his 27-year active duty Army career. He is also the holder of many civilian honors, including the Order of Military Merit, the 2012 GSN Award for Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Contributions, the 2015 H├ębert Impact Award, the 2022 David A. Whiting Leadership and Research Award of the American Hair Research Society (North/Central/South America), and the 2022 Walter R. Nickel Award for Excellence in Teaching of Dermatopathology given by the American Society of Dermatopathology. 

Sperling says he has enjoyed his long career as faculty member at USU. “The two things I’ve always wanted to do in my career are to be a physician and to teach. At USU, teaching is so enjoyable, especially working with all the young and enthusiastic students. Of course, nowadays, my students are always younger than I am.”

Continuing, Sperling adds, “I enjoy seeing them go from not understanding something to grasping it and being excited about knowing something new. That’s really what keeps me going. My passion lies in educating the next generation of dermatologists and dermatopathologists, but I learn something new from them every week.”

Sperling has gone above and beyond the call of duty to make a difference at USU. His talent as a revered teacher speaks to a lifetime of service and achievement.

“I find USU to be a very happy place,” Sperling says. “People are so gracious and friendly here. It’s such a great environment to be able to work in and be around these kinds of individuals. I’m very proud to be on the faculty at USU.”

Says Thomas Darling, chair of the department of Dermatology, “We congratulate Dr. Sperling on winning the Helwig award. We also thank Dr. Sperling, who has been a great friend of USU, for his long-standing and dedicated commitment to teaching and patient care in particular, and for everything he’s done over the course of his career to support and nurture our department and USU.”