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Surgeon who broke color barrier at Vanderbilt named Distinguished Alumnus

Jul. 15, 2008, 3:59 PM

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., whose passionate advocacy for racial equality and diversity was shaped by his early exposure to the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders, has been named the university’s 2008 Distinguished Alumnus. The Vanderbilt Alumni Association will honor Watkins, a noted cardiac surgeon, at an Oct. 22 dinner at the Student Life Center.

Watkins, a professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, was the first African American to enroll at and graduate from the Vanderbilt Medical School. The Vanderbilt Board of Trust member has been a pioneering leader not only in efforts to bring more racial diversity to medical and graduate education but also in research on coronary heart disease.

"Levi Watkins is a pioneer in his field and at Vanderbilt," Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said. "The university would not be what it is today without Levi’s many and ongoing contributions as a trailblazing student, a distinguished graduate and an engaged, thoughtful and committed Board of Trust member. His service to Vanderbilt and to society has been tireless, and he embodies the very spirit and meaning of the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and it is fitting to honor him in such a prominent and public way."

Watkins grew up in Montgomery, Ala., and was the valedictorian of his class at the Alabama State Laboratory High School. During that time he was introduced to and became friends with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. through his attendance at their churches. Watkins earned his bachelor’s degree at Tennessee State University, where he participated in the Civil Rights Movement.

He then enrolled at Vanderbilt, where he received his M.D. in 1970. As a medical student he was selected for membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society.

"When Levi Watkins walked through the doors of our School of Medicine in 1966, he broke new ground by becoming our first African American student. When he graduated four years later, he was still the only one," Dr. Harry Jacobson, vice chancellor for health affairs, said. "Levi is a pioneer whose integrity, brilliance and determination blazed a trail here. His footsteps created a highway of opportunity for Vanderbilt medical students, who are welcomed here without regards to their race, their ethnicity or their background. I can’t think of a more deserving recipient for this honor."

Watkins completed a surgical internship at Johns Hopkins and became the hospital’s first African American chief resident in cardiac surgery in 1978. Two years later he performed the world’s first implantation of an automatic defibrillator in a patient.

Watkins later developed several techniques for implanting this device. His strong interest in the risk of coronary heart disease in African Americans propelled his research, which is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of patients at risk for sudden cardiac death.

During a break in his surgical training from 1973 to 1975, Watkins conducted research at Harvard Medical School on the role of renin-angiotensin blockers in the treatment of congestive heart failure. The research of Watkins and others led to the clinical use of angiotensin blockers in the treatment of congestive heart failure.

At Johns Hopkins, Watkins worked tirelessly to increase diversity in medical education. Minority representation among medical students there had risen by 400 percent four years after Watkins joined the school’s admissions committee. In 1983 he was selected to the national board of the Robert Wood Johnson Minority Faculty Development Program, which strives to increase the number of minority medical faculty across the country.

At Vanderbilt, Watkins has established the annual Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education, which takes place this year at noon on Oct. 23 in Light Hall. In addition, the position of professor and associate dean was created in his name. It is held by George C. Hill, a professor of medical education and administration and microbiology and immunology.

"The Distinguished Alumnus Award represents so much more than simply career success. Individuals are really selected for their service and the contributions they’ve made to better the world," said Billy Ray Caldwell, president of the Vanderbilt Alumni Association. "We’re proud of Dr. Watkins’ association with Vanderbilt, and the Alumni Association is proud to present him with this honor for all he’s done."

Watkins’ life and work have been featured on PBS and Maryland Public Television. His numerous honors include the Doctorate of Humane Letters from Sojourner-Douglas College and other doctorates from Meharry Medical and Spelman colleges as well as Morgan State University. He also was honored by the Guidant Corporation for his research on the automatic defibrillator.

Other awards include Baltimore’s Best Citizen Award, American Red Cross Humanitarian Physician Award and the Towson State University Most Distinguished Black Marylander Award.

He was previously honored with the Vanderbilt Medal of Honor for outstanding medical school alumnus in 1998. In 2005 his portrait was unveiled at the School of Medicine, recognizing his life’s work and commitment to Vanderbilt.

Media Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS
annmarie.owens@vanderbilt.edu

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