Obituary: Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., MD’70, Soldier for Diversity

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. (photo by Joe Howell)
Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. (photo by Joe Howell)

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a renowned Baltimore cardiac surgeon, champion of racial equality and diversity, and the first African American to be admitted to and graduate from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM), died April 11, 2015, from complications after suffering a stroke. He was 70.

When Watkins walked through the doors of VUSM in 1966, he broke new ground by becoming the school’s first African American student. When he graduated four years later after being elected into Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, he was still the only one. But he blazed the trail for a medical school now nationally known for its admission of students underrepresented in medicine.

In 1978, Watkins became the first African American chief resident in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He then joined the full-time cardiac surgery faculty there, where he remained until his retirement in 2013. In February 1980 he performed the world’s first implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator in a patient, and he helped develop the cardiac arrhythmia service at Hopkins. He worked to increase diversity at Hopkins’ medical school, and four years after joining its admissions committee in 1979, minority representation rose by 400 percent.

Watkins, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, was a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and was a physician and friend to poet Maya Angelou. Active in the civil rights movement, he was a Vanderbilt medical student when King was assassinated in 1968.

At Vanderbilt the Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education—at which Watkins was the first speaker in 2002—is held each year, and Levi Watkins awards are presented to students and members of the VUSM faculty who have made outstanding contributions to the institution in fostering opportunities for underrepresented minorities in the university’s educational and/or research programs. In 1998, Watkins was presented the Vanderbilt Medal of Honor as outstanding alumnus of VUSM, and in 2008 he was named Vanderbilt University’s Distinguished Alumnus. He served with distinction as a member of the university’s Board of Trust from 2003 to 2013.

A few weeks after Watkins’ death, the university announced the establishment of the Levi Watkins Jr., M.D. Chair in his honor, to be awarded to a VUSM faculty member who is a leader in diversity. The endowed chair is made possible by an anonymous donor.

“Levi Watkins changed the way medical centers think, act and feel, as he guided us with a firm hand to implant principles of equality in medical training,” says Dr. Jeff Balser, MD’90, PhD’90, vice chancellor for health affairs and VUSM dean. “He accomplished this through courage and tenacity, charting frontiers early in his career at Vanderbilt, and later at Johns Hopkins, through a tireless devotion to mentoring students, residents and young faculty now working all over the world.”

Watkins is survived by two sisters, two brothers, and several nieces and nephews.