Dr Levi Watkins, Heart Surgeon and Civil Rights Activist, Dies at Age 70

April 22, 2015

BALTIMORE, MD — Dr Levi Watkins, the first physician to successfully implant an automatic defibrillator, died April 11, 2015 at Johns Hopkins Hospital following complications from an MI and stroke, according to published reports[1]. He was 70 years old.

Donald Watkins announced the passing of his brother on Facebook last week, saying Watkins was one of his heroes, a man he admired for his courage and strength in the American South during the 1960s.

"I was so proud of Levi and his rugged determination along the journey from rigid racial segregation in Alabama to acknowledged greatness in medicine on the world stage," wrote Watkins. "We reminisced that day about how the University of Alabama at Birmingham would not accept Levi into its whites-only medical school in 1966. Instead, the state of Alabama paid Levi's way to attend Vanderbilt Medical School, where he graduated as the first black medical student in that university's history."

When he graduated from Vanderbilt's medical school in 1970, he was still the only black student enrolled at the school. Watkins described his experience at Vanderbilt as "isolating and lonely."

Watkins was born in Parsons, KS, on June 13, 1944 but moved to Montgomery, AL, when his father, a professor, was named president of Alabama State College, according to the New York Times. When the family moved to Montgomery, they joined the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church where Dr Martin Luther King was pastor. The future physician met Dr King when he was 8 years old, the Times obituary reports.

As a child, Watkins was baptized by Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a civil rights leader. As a teenager, Watkins participated in the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott, a pivotal moment in the US civil rights movement. The 381-day citywide boycott of public transit, led by Dr King, was sparked after the arrest of Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. In later years, Watkins volunteered with Dr King, serving as a part-time driver.

Watkins earned his bachelor's degree from Tennessee State University. He later completed a surgical internship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, where he was its first black chief resident in cardiac surgery. He returned to join the Hopkins faculty after a stint at Harvard Medical School during the 1970s, where he studied the relationship between congestive heart failure and the renin-angiotensin system.

At Johns Hopkins in 1980, Watkins implanted the world's first automatic defibrillator in a 57-year-old woman. He retired from Johns Hopkins and medicine in 2013.

Watkins was widely known as an advocate for black and ethnic-minority students and doctors, noting he was determined to ensure they too had opportunities in the field. He was a member of Johns Hopkins' medical school admissions committee and also worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's medical faculty development program, a program aimed at diversity at US schools.

Tennessee State University is planning a memorial service for Watkins on April 27, 2015.

"Dr Levi Watkins changed the world with his passion for medicine," Tennessee State University president Glenda Glover stated in a press release. "Dr Watkins not only impacted the field of medicine, but he also inspired African-Americans to become doctors as he broke down the color barrier at two of the nation's leading medical institutions."


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