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Lecture reflects on the lives touched by Levi Watkins

Oct. 14, 2021, 3:54 PM

John Tarpley, MD, left, poses with Steven Stain, MD, past president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons, before Tarpley’s lecture.
John Tarpley, MD, left, poses with Steven Stain, MD, past president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons, before Tarpley’s lecture. (photo by Donn Jones)

by Jill Clendening

Levi Watkins Jr., MD, has an enduring legacy as a cardiovascular surgeon, mentor and advocate, and John Tarpley, MD, professor emeritus of Surgery and Anesthesiology and academic dean of the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons, recently shared his reflections about the remarkable impact of his friend and colleague, both on the medical profession and on the lives of others.

Levi Watkins Jr., MD

Tarpley attended Vanderbilt University School of Medicine with Watkins, who was the first African American student to attend and graduate from the medical school. Tarpley and Watkins then went on to Johns Hopkins Hospital to complete surgical residencies together. Watkins stayed on to join the faculty at Johns Hopkins, building a career as a renowned cardiac surgeon.

Tarpley spent two years during residency at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health before forging a career as an academic surgeon dedicated to international medical service in education, clinical care and capacity building. In 2016, Tarpley retired from VUMC after 23 years as a faculty member.

He and his wife, Maggie — who was a senior associate for VUMC’s Section of Surgical Sciences — immediately set off on a five-year commitment to medical service in Kenya, Rwanda and Botswana. They’ve officially returned to Nashville, though their passports will gather no dust as they continue to fulfill international commitments.

Addressing a lecture hall scattered throughout with surgeons and surgical trainees, as well as a remote audience tuned in from across the country, Tarpley’s talk was both nostalgic and inspirational. It was also a welcome break from COVID-19 topics, and many joyful elbow taps in lieu of handshakes were exchanged between colleagues who have had little opportunity or inclination to gather in one space for many long months.

Tarpley focused on Watkins’ legacy as a surgeon, mentor and advocate, but he added that Watkins was also a skilled administrator, and that made him a rare “quadruple threat” who was focused on serving others. When discussing Watkins’ civil rights activities and advocacy for underrepresented populations, Tarpley highlighted his success in establishing the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration at Johns Hopkins. Watkins brought noteworthy individuals such as Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou, many of whom were personal friends, to Johns Hopkins to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The weeklong civil rights celebration recently marked its 39th year.

Watkins’ dedication and successes in diversifying the medical staff and student population at Johns Hopkins were also noted.

“In 1979, when Levi started his academic career on faculty, Johns Hopkins was taking two, maybe three, African American students per class,” Tarpley said. “He joined the medical school’s admissions committee and became a catalytic agent. He had charges to the group to address the inequality that was there, and only four years later, they were having 12 to 14 African American students per class. Levi was really at the forefront, especially in advocacy for those who would be going into surgery.”

Tarpley also reflected on Watkins’ efforts to establish medical student and residency training for Black students in South Africa. This effort to create sustainable improvements in the provision of medical care in underserved areas of the world became a passion both men shared over the years.

“One of the words that I associate most with Levi is ‘integrity,’” Tarpley said. “He had a vocation, which means a calling. That’s different from a career. Levi was a friend; he was a mentor; he was a role model. I thank God for Levi Watkins.”

The Claude Organ Lecture, sponsored by the Society of Black Academic Surgeons and the Southern Surgical Association, is a competitively awarded, traveling lectureship in honor of Claude Organ, MD, a pioneering Black academic surgeon. In addition to Organ’s clinical accomplishments and leadership in educating young surgeons, he was a founding member of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons. In 2003, he served as the second African American president of the American College of Surgeons.

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