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Johns Hopkins University names outpatient center in honor of Levi Watkins Jr.

Jun. 15, 2023, 8:58 AM

Levi Watkins Jr., MD

by Bill Snyder

Last week, Johns Hopkins University named the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center in Baltimore for the late Levi Watkins Jr., MD, Vanderbilt University’s first Black medical school graduate in 1970 best known for his pioneering heart surgery and civil rights activism.

The center, now called the Levi Watkins Jr. M.D. Outpatient Center, serves 300,000 patients annually and is part of Hopkins’ Diverse Names and Narratives Project. Johns Hopkins officials described renaming the facility as “an ongoing effort to more visibly honor and celebrate remarkable people from the institution’s history.”

“Levi came to love the institution (Hopkins) where he made his life’s career and also the city of Baltimore,” said his sister, Annie Marie Garraway, PhD. “He was never away from them for long. For our family, it is fitting and gratifying that Levi’s achievements are being recognized and honored in this way. A building named in his memory will inspire so many others to follow their dreams, no matter the obstacles.”

“Dr. Watkins will forever hold an influential place in Vanderbilt’s history and that of Johns Hopkins. We continue to learn from the example he set,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It is important for the institutions that were central to his pioneering career to continue to honor his legacy so that future generations can understand the impact of his efforts to advance diversity and inclusion.”

After earning his MD from Vanderbilt in 1970, Watkins began his medical residency at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, eventually becoming Hopkins’ first Black chief resident in cardiac surgery. In 1973 he went to Harvard University, where his research advanced the use of angiotensin blockers to treat congestive heart failure.

He later returned to Hopkins, where he investigated the use of automatic defibrillators to detect and correct potentially life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms. In 1980, he was the first surgeon to successfully implant an automatic defibrillator in a human patient.

A graduate of Tennessee State University, Watkins was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. After joining the medical school admissions committee at Hopkins in 1979, he helped increase the number of Black medical students from 8 to 40 in just four years.

Named professor of cardiac surgery at Hopkins in 1991, Watkins also served as associate dean of the School of Medicine until he retired in 2013.

Dr. Watkins was elected to the Vanderbilt University Board of Trustees in 2003, serving until 2013. In 2002, the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine established the annual Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education. During the lecture, awards in Watkins’ name are presented to medical school faculty and students for outstanding contributions to fostering opportunities for underrepresented minorities in education or research.

Watkins attended every lecture until his death in April 2015.

Also in 2002, George C. Hill, PhD, was named Levi Watkins Jr. Professor in Medical Education and the School of Medicine’s first associate dean for diversity in medical education.

“Dr. Watkins was a force for change,” said Hill, who later served as Vanderbilt University’s first vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and Chief Diversity Officer until his retirement in 2017. “He motivated students throughout the country to careers in medicine and worked tirelessly to increase diversity in medicine and achieve health equity.”

After Dr. Watkins’ death, Vanderbilt established the Levi Watkins Jr. MD Chair. It currently is held by André Churchwell, MD, professor of Medicine, Biomedical Engineering and Radiology and Radiological Sciences, and Vanderbilt University’s Chief Diversity Officer and vice chancellor for Outreach, Inclusion and Belonging.

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