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Johns Hopkins Surgeon Named Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumnus

by Jul. 13, 2008, 12:35 PM

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., MD’70, associate dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and professor of cardiac surgery, is this year’s recipient of the highest honor bestowed upon an alumnus of the university: the Vanderbilt Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.

First presented in 1996, the award recognizes an alumnus or alumna whose accomplishments and contributions have had a broad positive impact on humankind–and who has made the choice to go beyond a successful vocation to do something of greater benefit to the universal community. Levi Watkins embodies these noble traits.

Watkins broke new ground in 1966 when he enrolled as the first African American student of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Four years later, when he received his medical degree, he was still the only one. Since that time he has had a remarkable career, and his achievements have been recognized by Vanderbilt repeatedly through the years. In 1998 the School of Medicine awarded him the Vanderbilt Medal of Honor for outstanding alumni, and the school established an annual Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education.

In 2002, Vanderbilt established a professorship and associate deanship in his name at the School of Medicine. The next year Watkins was named to the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust.

Levi Watkins’ entire career has been punctuated by important “firsts.” At Johns Hopkins he was the first African American person to serve as chief resident in cardiac surgery, as professor of cardiac surgery, and as associate dean of the School of Medicine. In 1980 he performed the world’s first human implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator–a procedure that has been repeated more than a million times worldwide since then.

Watkins defined the role of the renin-angiotensin system in congestive heart failure, leading to today’s common clinical use of angiotensin blockers in treating the disease. He helped revolutionize the culture for postdoctoral education in America by working to establish the nation’s first postdoctoral association.

He even graduated first in his class in high school.

Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., Watkins was exposed to widespread prejudice and to the early Civil Rights Movement, which sealed his commitment to racial equality, particularly in medicine. Now living in Baltimore, where he has been named “Best Citizen” by the city’s mayor, Watkins has been awarded four honorary doctorates and has earned numerous other accolades because of his medical experience and interest in worldwide human rights.

For information on how to nominate an individual for the 2009 award, visit