April 13, 2015

Vanderbilt mourns loss of Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., pioneer of medicine and champion of racial equality

Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., renowned 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 Saturday from complications after suffering a stroke. He was 70.

Levi Watkins Jr., M.D.

Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., renowned 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 Saturday from complications after suffering a stroke. He was 70.

When Dr. 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 the Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) Honor Medical Society, he was still the only one. However, he blazed the trail for a medical school now nationally recognized for its admission of students underrepresented in medicine.

In 1978, after his surgical internship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Dr. Watkins became the hospital’s first African-American chief resident in cardiac surgery. During a break in his surgical training from 1973 to 1975, he conducted research at Harvard Medical School on the role of renin-angiotensin blockers in the treatment of congestive heart failure.

After completing his residency, he joined the full-time faculty in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins. In February 1980, he performed the world’s first implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator in a patient, and subsequently developed several different techniques for implanting the device. Dr. Watkins also helped develop the cardiac arrhythmia service at Hopkins. He retired in 2013.

He was to have welcomed newly accepted medical students on Sunday at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and was to have been honored this week with a distinguished alumni award from National Medical Fellowships Inc., in New York City.

“Levi was a true pioneer whose innovations and persistence broke scientific and cultural barriers throughout his long, distinguished career. We are deeply grateful for his determination and achievements that paved the way for many minority students to follow in his footsteps,” said Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “He worked with a dedicated passion to increase diversity in higher education, and we are indebted to him for bearing this torch and shining a light on racial inequity. His example led us on the path toward a more just and inclusive society. His death leaves a great void and inspires us to continue to strive toward a culture of acceptance and opportunity for all.”

At Vanderbilt, a lecture named after Dr. Watkins — the Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education — is held each year. Levi Watkins awards are given to students and members of the VUSM faculty who have made outstanding contributions to the institution in fostering opportunities for underrepresented minorities in Vanderbilt’s educational and/or research programs.

“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,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “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. I count myself among the many who relied on his wisdom, his warm friendship and his steadfast support and encouragement.”

Dr. Watkins was a humble, optimistic man, said Andre Churchwell, M.D., senior associate dean for Diversity Affairs and professor of Medicine. “Levi, 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.”

George Hill, Ph.D., professor of Medical Education and Administration Emeritus, formerly the Levi Watkins Jr. Professor and Distinguished Professor of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology, said that Dr. Watkins “was a man of courage, character, commitment and conviction, the true definition of a leader. 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 in 2002.”

Hill said that Dr. Watkins has attended every Watkins lecture. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Dr. Watkins’ admission to VUSM. “I was looking forward to celebrating with him,” he said.

Speaking at the first annual Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education in 2002, Dr. Watkins said, “Affirmative action got me into Vanderbilt Medical School. Watkins action got me out.

“When I walked through those doors (in 1966), I never would have imagined, ever, what we are doing here today,” Dr. Watkins said then. He also noted at that lecture that “there was much work left to be done.”

In addition to his clinical duties at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Watkins worked to increase diversity at Hopkins’ medical school. Four years after joining the medical school’s admissions committee in 1979, minority representation rose by 400 percent. In 1983, he was appointed to the National Board of the Robert Wood Johnson Minority Faculty Development Program, which seeks to increase the number of minority medical faculty nationally. Dr. Watkins’ work has been featured in books, a PBS documentary and in Science, the official publication for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In 2008, Dr. Watkins was named Vanderbilt University’s Distinguished Alumnus. He was previously honored with the Vanderbilt Medal of Honor for outstanding medical school alumnus in 1998. He served on the University’s Board of Trust from 2003 to 2013. In 2005 his portrait was unveiled at the School of Medicine, recognizing his life’s work and commitment to Vanderbilt.

Dr. Watkins, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, 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. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Tennessee State University, where he participated in the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Watkins was a Vanderbilt medical student in 1968 when Rev. King was assassinated. “It was the saddest day of my life that day, when not everybody was unhappy,” he said in a Vanderbilt interview. A physician and friend to poet Maya Angelou, Dr. Watkins first met Ms. Angelou in Alabama during the mid-1970s, when both were visiting Coretta Scott King.

“Levi Watkins, Jr. has been my friend of nearly 49 years — fellow student, fellow resident, fellow faculty member and constant catalyst to advocate for the powerless and the excluded,” said John Tarpley, M.D., professor of Surgery and VUSM classmate of Dr. Watkins from the 1970 graduating class. “Levi was a great surgeon and a great and effective social activist. He kept my feet to the fire, as he did for many. Vanderbilt, Hopkins, the USA and indeed the world is a better place by virtue of his life and efforts. He had much more to contribute. He departs us too early. Plus he was a terrific advocate and institutional citizen of Vanderbilt as a student and since graduation in 1970. Few like him come around. His indeed was a life fully and well-lived.”

Kevin Johnson, M.D., professor and chair of Biomedical Informatics and a Cornelius Vanderbilt chair, said Dr. Watkins 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.”

Dr. Watkins is survived by sisters Annie Marie Garraway and Doristine L. Minott, brothers Donald V. Watkins Sr. and James Watkins, and several nieces and nephews.

A memorial service for Dr. Watkins will be held in Baltimore at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21, at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave. Visitation will be at the same location from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

A service at Vanderbilt is being planned.