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Levi Watkins, Jr., MD: In Memoriam

Levi Watkins, MD

Over the course of the last few weeks much has been written mourning, remembering, and honoring the life and legacy of Levi Watkins, Jr., MD, retired Associate Dean for Post-doctoral Programs and Faculty Development and Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. I am honored to represent his fellow African American surgeons, who shared professional membership and fellowship with him in the Surgical Section of the National Medical Association and the Society of Black Academic Surgeons, in the writing of this epitaph upon his great legacy and our memory.

As a group of black surgeons, and particularly those of us who have spent our careers around academic medical centers and departments of surgery, we, perhaps, share as much or more in common with Professor Watkins than any others. Like Dr. Watkins, we were enthralled early in our lives with the idea of going to college, then to medical school, becoming a physician and caring for the sick and injured. We appreciated the biological sciences, the history of their development, and the challenge they provided to us to unlock their secrets for the benefit of mankind. In addition, many of us share his humble beginnings, his struggles to overcome the obstacles to the course towards medicine, and his triumphs in the satisfaction that we made it despite not always being accepted. As one looks back over the nearly 400 years of the African-American experience on this continent and its cataclysmic sociopolitical impact on the educational and professional opportunities of our people, it is clear that Dr. Watkins was unique in both the opportunities afforded him and what he did with them. He was a rare entity in his generation and he declared his appreciation for that opportunity and his humility for it in churches, at public forums, in classrooms, and on the mountaintops of academia. Most importantly, he inspired school children, high school and college students, medical students and residents, and junior academic faculty to work hard and realize their potential. He did so in the chorus, howl, hoot, and gentle shriek of his southern upbringing. He never forgot where he came from or tried to disguise it.

Dr. Watkins' life journey is a glowing example of what can happen when someone in a position of influence is willing to provide an opportunity to youth, to give a young promising student a chance, and to observe the union of opportunity and ability. Dr. Watkins was born in Parsons, Kansas on

June 13, 1944. His family later moved to Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. Watkins spent the majority of his upbringing. His father was a college professor who became president of Alabama State College in Montgomery. His mother, Mrs. Lillian (Varnado) Watkins, was a high school teacher and homemaker. He and his family initially belonged to First Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church ministry led by Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, graduate of Alabama State University and one of those who played a key role in making the civil rights social revolution a reality (1, 2). As a teenager, Dr. Watkins joined Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church led by young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was for the rest of his life influenced by the teachings, motivation, and civic work of these two historic ministers and civil rights leaders. He went to college and graduated from Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee (3). He became the first African-American to be admitted (1966) to and graduate from (1970) Vanderbilt University School of Medicine where he was upon the assassination of his respected mentor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1970 as the first black general surgery intern and in 1978 became the hospital's first African-American chief resident in cardiac surgery. He spent 1973 to 1975 conducting research at Harvard Medical School studying and making significant contributions to our knowledge of the role of renin-angiotensin blockers in the treatment of congestive heart failure. He remained on the Johns Hopkins University Medical School faculty for the remainder of his life.
Professor Watkins' role at Johns Hopkins must be viewed in the context of the historical significance of that institution. Towards the end of the 19th century, American medical schools and medical education was relatively primitive and greatly disorganized. Most existing medical schools were, basically, trade schools and surgical education was by apprenticeship. Medical and surgical education was forever transformed with the opening of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1889 and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1893. This great institution ushered in a new era in medical education with rigid entrance criteria for medical students and trainees and developed a curriculum with emphasis on scientific methods, bedside teaching, and laboratory research. It was the first academic medical center in our nation with integration of the School of Medicine with the Hospital with joint appointments of the faculty. It was known as one of the top institutions for surgical education and for developing future leaders throughout the 20th century and until this day. High standards of excellence were established and maintained. It was the institution's tripartite mission of education, discovery, and clinical service that attracted Dr. Watkins to Baltimore where he adopted the mission and remained true to its values as he ascended the ranks of the faculty and became one of Johns Hopkins' highly reputable faculty members.

Professor Watkins insisted that other qualified African-American college students from across the country be given the opportunity to matriculate and to train in medicine and surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was appointed to the medical school admissions board in 1983 and his singular efforts led to a significant increase in recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of African-Americans and other minority students. He insisted, and I have heard him say it many times, that the best approach to recruitment of minority students is by example and by mentorship. He understood that the presence of faculty who looked like the medical students and residents was extremely important. When he retired from active cardiac surgical activities in the operating room in 2006 he turned his attention to post-doctoral programs and faculty development as an associate dean of the School of Medicine. He was honored on several occasions by his alma mater—Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. A lecture in his honor has been given there for several years: the Levi Watkins, Jr., MD Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education.
Dr. Watkins first met Vivien Thomas (grandson of a slave who was not allowed to go to medical school but pioneered cardiac surgical procedures with Alfred Blalock, MD at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins) in a laboratory at Vanderbilt University and they were later reunited at Johns Hopkins during his residency (4). These two great black men will forever be associated with cardiac surgery and Johns Hopkins and the world will not forget the contributions of these black men from humble beginnings who were given an opportunity.
Unique notables to be remembered about Professor Watkins was that he was nominated (but did not win) the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on the implantable cardiac defibrillator which he first implanted. Also, his skill and discipline was such that he performed open cardiac surgery upon his own father at Hopkins in 1993, performing procedures on the coronary arteries and the mitral valve (5). He made numerous invited appearances at American universities and medical schools. He never wanted to turn down an opportunity to enlighten and motivate young people. The author will not forget his inspirational guest appearance at Case Western Reserve University in 2012 and at Morehouse School of Medicine in 2014.
Appropriately, there has been both pomp and simplicity in the days of mourning following Professor Watkins' death. Members of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons and the Surgical Section of the National Medical Association were well-acquainted with Levi Watkins, MD and we admired him for his friendly and ‘down-home’ demeanor, and for his numerous achievements as a cardiac surgeon and leader in American Surgery. When he died on April 11, 2015 we mourned his death with countless others. Many Americans have never heard of him. I hope this writing will inform a few more about this quintessential gentleman and African-American cardiac surgeon and University Professor


Frederick D. Cason, MD, FACS
Professor of Surgery
Vice Chairman for Surgical Education
Department of Surgery
Morehouse School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia
Historian and Archivist, Society of Black Academic Surgeons and Surgical Section of The National Medical Association


  1. Wexler E, Sacchetti C, Lovett A. A Transcript of the Documentary, Finding A Rainbow in the Clouds: The Tenure of Dr. Levi Watkins at The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
  2. Abernathy R. D., And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1989, pp 104-08
  4. Johns Hopkins' Pioneering Cardiac Surgeon Reflects on Lifetime of Service
  6. Coronary Heart Disease and Bypass Surgery in Urban Blacks
  7. Levi Watkins, Jr, Kevin Gardner, Vincent Gott, Timothy J. Gardner
    J Natl Med Assoc. 1983 April; 75(4): 381–383

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