April 13, 2015

Remembering Levi Watkins Jr.

Andre Churchwell, M.D., George Hill, Ph.D., Kevin Johnson, M.D., and John Tarpley, M.D., reflect on the life and legacy of Levi Watkins Jr., M.D.

Andre Churchwell, M.D.

Irving Berlin wrote, ”The song is ended, but the melody lingers on, you and the song are gone but the melody lingers on…”

Such is the case of the life of Levi Watkins Jr., M.D. Levi’s life was one committed to transformative change, starting the day he walked through the doors of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM), nearly a half-century ago. His natural curiosity, intelligence and passions spurred him to effect change in many areas of human endeavor. Given his energy, determination and family-imbued values he was able to leave a monumental legacy for the ages:

Andre Churchwell, M.D.

FIRST, in the sciences, his research with A. Clifford Barger, M.D., of The Harvard Medical School delineated the role of the Renin-Angiotensin System in Systolic Congestive heart Failure (1978). The clinical application of this research is still saving lives, as the use of ACE (-) has become one of the gold standards in the treatment of Congestive Heart Failure. Furthermore, in 1980 his bold implantation of the first automatic defibrillator (AICD), paved the way for many thousand AICD implantations, which have saved patients either from recurrent life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias or prevented sudden cardiac death in patients at risk for this condition.

SECOND, as a Civil Rights advocate and Diversity Officer for Johns Hopkins Medical School (JHMS), his commitment and unswerving drive help to open the door for hundreds of minority students to matriculate and graduate from this notable school. Many of his students have gone on to careers in academic medicine, such as the new president of Meharry Medical School, James Hildreth, M.D., Ph.D.

In VUSM’s early days of building a supportive climate and environment for minority students, Dr. Watkins allowed then dean Steven Gabbe, M.D., and now current dean Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., with the assistance of then associate dean for Diversity, George Hill, Ph.D., to use him as a symbol for diversity. They created a celebratory day of activities and diversity awards, stimulated by his unique and at times painful journey as VUSM’s first URM student. Such was his charity of spirit and commitment to the cause of diversity. From those early efforts, the Office for Diversity Affairs, led initially by Dr. Hill and now Andre’ L. Churchwell, M.D., working in tandem with the Admissions Committee and the Office of Medical education, has seen more than 200 URM VUSM students matriculate.

In addition, his appointment to the faculty council of the Harold Amos RWJF Minority Faculty Development Program only served to amplify his mentoring effect and placed him on a platform to change the lives of many young budding minority academicians, spurring them on by his boundless energy, love and support. On many occasions, Dr. Watkins would utilize his social capital and wisdom to help mentees overcome challenges of racism, unconscious bias and inadequate resource support at their institutions. His efforts, along with other faculty members of the RWJF-MFD, has led to graduates of the program assuming positions of high leadership at the NHLBI, NIHBME and other major academic posts.

Levi Watkins Jr., whether in his role as researcher, advocate for civil rights or pushing institutions as a soldier for diversity in medical education and admission processes, never forgot his roots or values taught him by his family, of humility, egalitarianism, grace and humor. He used these lessons as part of his tool kit to push for academic excellence and broad diversity.

We who met him on the road of life are all the better from his influence, his faith in us, and his unbridled optimism.

As we teach our students on the value and need to shift your leadership style based on the immediate situation, he was an early example of how to “message shift” from the personage of an austere researcher to a fire and brimstone spouting Baptist preacher to a bon vivant able to charm the most gruff opponents. It is when we reflect on all of his complexities and skills that we understand the true measure of this great leader. We are fortunate that the Lord placed him in our path. Vanderbilt is a better place because Levi Watkins Jr. passed our way.

Dr. Watkins recently stepped down from his official duties at JHMS, but never being one to slow down or rest on his laurels, he remained committed to the journey of promoting diversity, developing minority academic leaders and social justice. As little as two weeks ago, he had arranged his busy schedule to be here at VUSM for the opening of the National Library of Medicine’s traveling exhibit on Academic African-American Surgeons, in which he was notably featured. With his passing, the exhibit’s opening reception, to be held on Thursday, April 16, will carry added poignancy and significance. Rather than a presentation by Dr. Watkins we will use the moment to offer a heartfelt tribute to him and his many surgical contributions.

Lastly, Dr. Watkins was a student of Martin Luther King Jr. and, by the way he lived his life, one can see that he believed, like Dr. King, that “Integration is an opportunity to participate in the beauty of Diversity.” He would also agree with King’s admonition that, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I wrote a piece on my late father a few years ago and many of the sentiments I expressed in that piece echo to me today when I reflect on Levi’s life: ”A long life and many lessons shared. He was not selective; his wisdom and love were freely dispensed. His legacy is that mercy, love and service must be taught, shared and perpetuated. For him, this was the meaning and purpose of a complete life.”


George Hill, Ph.D.

Dr. Watkins will always have a presence throughout our country and here at VUSM. We will honor his legacy as long as the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine exists with the annual Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture in his honor, where he was the first speaker. He attended every presentation of the Levi Watkins Jr. lecture, from when it was established in October 2002 through last year. What I admired most about Levi during his years here from 1966-1970 was that he was not only the first African-American in our medical school but was the only African-American student for four years.

George Hill, Ph.D.

Levi was a man of courage, character commitment and conviction, the true definition of a leader. And it was never just about him.

Courage — He was our first African-American student and knew that the four-year journey would have difficult challenges. He faced these challenges with dignity, strength and God’s support and grace. He was a man of deep faith.

Character — he was a man of high integrity and never wavered, treating all with respect and kindness.

Commitment — He was a true mentor of all, especially students and also faculty, physicians and friends. He wanted to see all successful. He worked throughout his life to address health disparities and injustice.

Conviction — He stood up for his beliefs and was prepared to say so, whether in the classroom, the surgery suite, on the VU Board of Trust or with his colleagues, and thus he gained their respect.

All students admired his tenacity, mentoring and creativity; faculty were in awe of his persistence and unwavering commitment to justice and to medicine, and administrators respected his wisdom. His final scientific lecture here in 2011, at the 10th Levi Watkins, Jr. lecture, focused on his research to implant the first defibrillator in a patient, accomplished in 1980, only 10 years after he graduated from VUSM in 1970 and matching at Johns Hopkins in cardiac surgery.

I was looking forward to celebrating with him next year in 2016 the 50th anniversary of his admission to VUSM and presenting the book to him I am writing on the ongoing progress of transforming VUSM to a more diverse and inclusive one. His portrait was placed in 2005, at the request of our students and by then-Dean Steve Gabbe, in our major lecture hall and will be a continuing tribute and reminder of his work, wisdom and the unfinished business to achieve health equity in our country.


Kevin Johnson, M.D.

I have a very fond remembrance of something Levi did for me that arguably was emblematic of the role he played for many of us.

Kevin Johnson, M.D.

It is the day of my interview for medical school. I am already feeling anxious, because I was told by people at my college that no one from there ever got into Hopkins! My interview lasts a total of 10 minutes. It begins with one question offered up by a very fidgety gentleman who was a professor of neurology. He asks, “tell me about your pet octopus.” It turns out that has a child I kept an octopus in captivity for a long time, which was an unusual event. I was very proud of this; it was prominent in my personal statement. Anyway, I answer the question, which takes approximately five minutes. After I finish my answer, the interviewer says thank you to me and wishes me well.

As I walk out, tears begin to well up in my eyes. I have never failed anything as badly as I must’ve failed this interview, because he clearly had nothing else to say to me. Not knowing what else to do, I continue with what I have promised, which is to call Dr. Watkins to debrief him on my interview.

It takes about 15 minutes for Dr. Watkins to find me in the admissions area. By this point, all of my tears have dried up, and I have resolved myself to prepare better for Penn’s medical school interview the following week.

I spend 2 minutes explaining what happened to Dr. Watkins, and the tears begin to make a repeat appearance! He says to me, “Hold on, let me check, but my guess is that it will all be fine.” In five minutes, he’s back with a big smile on his face. To paraphrase what he said, it was that the interview stopped because the interviewer thought I was a future star and had nothing else to ask!

In this moment, as in many others to come, he was the consummate mentor. He was a tremendous force — one who literally made it possible for many of us to become successful doctors, in addition to saving millions of lives and advising tens of thousands of students and adults interested in the health sciences. He was tenacious, yet considered; passionate, but purposeful; and a man combining the art of humility with the ferocity of a fire-breathing dragon about matters of equality and justice.


John Tarpley, M.D.

Levi Watkins has been a personal friend, colleague and catalyst for nearly 49 years. He has been an incredible “Friend of Vanderbilt” over the past nearly four decades on multiple fronts, never forgetting his medical school roots.

John Tarpley, M.D.

I met Levi Watkins Jr. in the late summer of 1966 when we were among the 54 folks matriculating at Vanderbilt for medical school: two women, one chap from Sri Lanka, 50 white guys “who could not jump,” and Levi, the first VUSM African-American student. Levi was familiar with Nashville and served as president of the student body at Tennessee A&I, which had a name change to Tennessee State University in 1968. For his first year of med school Levi lived in an undergraduate dorm at the Vanderbilt Men’s Quad.

Levi’s father was an educator, the president of the historically black university Alabama State in Montgomery, a personal friend and colleague of and later pallbearer for Martin Luther King Jr. Levi Jr. was close to his family; he too was an advocate for racial justice and active in addressing disparities via the Civil Rights movement. Levi was an excellent student. His initial year was not so easy, in part because of taunts he on occasion received in the dorm. He dealt with any discrimination there and elsewhere; he earned the respect of all at the med school, students and faculty. He was an honors (AΩA) graduate and a class leader.

Levi elected to pursue Surgery via the Match of 1970. He, Phil Rosenbloom, father of current Vanderbilt faculty member Trent Rosenbloom, and I all matched at Hopkins for General Surgery. An African-American, a Jew, and a Mississippi white all journeyed off to Baltimore to start our residencies. Levi was a leader of our intern class in an era where one was not guaranteed of a position for five years as now pertains; the early ‘70s were in the era of “the Pyramid.” I was fortunate as a Chief Resident to have Levi as my Senior Assistant Resident and benefited by his support, input and continued friendship over our 11 years together between Vanderbilt and Hopkins.

Some of the rest of the story: Levi excelled as a cardiac surgeon; he was a key figure in the development of the AICD. Following his residency and fellowship Levi stayed on faculty at Hopkins and then added the duties of Associate Dean where he, along with colleagues, changed the culture. Levi has been a force at and a conscience for Hopkins for 45 years. Levi helped change the culture, just as he had done at Vanderbilt, to make it a more racially diverse, accepting and multicultural environment. Levi arrived at Hopkins and met Vivian Thomas, who had been at Vanderbilt and accompanied Alfred Blalock to Baltimore in the early 1940s.

As Levi departs, one mark of his influence on culture change is the recent announcement of the appointment of Dr. Robert S.A. Higgins, cardiac surgeon from Ohio State University, an African-American, as chair of Surgery at Hopkins, with a 75-year progression from Thomas to Watkins to Higgins. Levi Watkins Jr.’s legacy lives on at Vanderbilt and at Hopkins.


Ryan Lang, M.D.

The younger generation of health professionals (including myself) mourns the loss of Dr. Levi Watkins, who was a trailblazer in medicine and fought untiringly for the diverse representation of people from all backgrounds in the field of medicine and at Johns Hopkins.

Ryan Lang, M.D.

I first met him when I was a first-year medical student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and again a year ago as a medical intern at Johns Hopkins. Both times, Dr. Watkins was very personable and took time to speak to me and ask how I was progressing in my studies. He shared his challenges as the first black student to be admitted to Vanderbilt and as the first black surgical intern at Johns Hopkins. He was indeed a man of many firsts.

He was intensely devoted to the success of all trainees and especially minority trainees, and he held an annual dinner to welcome new medical students, graduate students, residents and clinical fellows of color to Johns Hopkins.

His influence was felt even after his recent retirement, as various administrators and faculty at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital were present. Even Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore’s mayor, was there to give her welcome. His annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, which he founded 39 years ago, brings together hundreds of staff from various departments at Johns Hopkins and members from the community each January to hear from national leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and the late Maya Angelou, who each spoke during previous years.

I was happy to see him honored with a commissioned portrait that was revealed at the most recent MLK commemoration a few months ago. That same portrait was displayed in the hospital shortly before his untimely death. His legacy lives on with hundreds of minority medical students who have matriculated through Vanderbilt, as well as hundreds of medical alumni of color who have trained at Johns Hopkins over several decades, all because of his efforts.


Kimberly Vinson, M.D.

When I entered Vanderbilt University School of Medicine as an African-American student in the summer of 1999, I knew very little about the history of integration at the school.

Kimberly Vinson, M.D.

I did not know that a fellow Alabamian, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., had been the first of my kind to receive a Vanderbilt medical education. I did not know how hard he had to work to prove that he belonged or how tough he had to be to persevere with many praying for his failure. Actually, several years went by before I learned of his struggles at the first Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture in 2002.

After returning to Vanderbilt and being named assistant dean for Diversity Affairs in 2011, I had the pleasure of spending time with Dr. Watkins, learning not only about his struggles, but also about his successes and his dreams for the future of our institution and our world. He was always gracious and kind, but held a fire inside that I have seldom seen in others.

I become more indebted to him every day for making it possible for me, and all other minority students, to receive a Vanderbilt medical education. I do hope that he knows that our collective successes are due in large part to him.