Dr. Levi Watkins

Opening Doors: Dr. Levi Watkins

Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Programs at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, holds the distinction of being the first black enrollee and graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Dr. Watkins, who received his MD in 1970, has attained acclaim for both his surgical accomplishments and social activism.

Dr. Watkins was born June 13, 1945, in Parsons, Kansas to Lillian Bernice Varnado and Alabama State University president Levi Watkins, Sr. Before attending Vanderbilt, Watkins graduated from Tennessee State University in 1966. After graduating from Vanderbilt, he completed his internship (1970-73) and residency training (1975-1978) at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital. At Hopkins, he became the first black chief resident of cardiac surgery. He also completed a residency at Harvard Medical School, Department of Physiology (1973-1975), where he studied the role of the renin-angiotensin system during congestive heart failure. The clinical use of angiotensin blockers in the treatment of congestive heart failure is in large part based on these studies. In 1978, he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins as assistant professor of Cardiac Surgery, rising to the rank of professor in 1991.

In 1980, Dr. Watkins became the first surgeon to implant an automatic implantable defibrillator (AID) in a patient, and he has since developed several techniques for the implantation of the device. Dr. Watkins has also pioneered the use of lasers in heart surgery.

Committed to the cause of racial equality in medicine, Dr. Watkins was appointed in 1979 to Johns Hopkins' admissions committee where he worked to recruit black students for the Hopkins Medical School. After a record number of black students graduated from Hopkins in 1983, Dr. Watkins joined the national board of the Robert Wood Johnson Minority Faculty Development Program.

Dr. Watkins is the recipient of many accolades, including the Vanderbilt Medal of Honor for outstanding alumni (1998) and the university's "Distinguished Alumnus Award" (2008). In recognition of his work for diversity in medical education, Vanderbilt established a Professorship and Associate Deanship in his name in 2002. He currently serves as a member of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust.

Unfortunately, Dr. Watkins passed away on April 11, 2015.

The image in the center of the header is courtesy of Johns Hopkins Medicine. The other images on this page are from the Eskind Biomedical Library Special Collections.