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 from complications after suffering a stroke at age 70 on Friday, April 10. The Tennessee State University family is deeply saddened over the death of one of its favorite sons, a 1966 graduate of the university. The TSU and Vanderbilt alumnus revolutionized the medical world with the creation and implantation of the Automatic Implantable Defibrillator (AID), which revolutionized cardiology and has saved thousands of lives, as it detects irregular heart rhythms and shocks the heart back to life.
“Dr. Levi Watkins changed the world with his passion for medicine,” said TSU President Glenda Glover. “The university family extends sincerest condolences to the Watkins family during this difficult time. Dr. Watkins not only impacted the field of medicine, but he also inspired African Americans to become doctors as he broke down the color barrier at two of the nation’s leading medical institutions. TSU will always remember his service to others, professional achievements, and dedication to his alma mater. He leaves a tremendous legacy that will surely inspire our students and others that follow in his footsteps.”
Watkins enrolled at TSU in 1962, majored in biology, was elected student body president, and graduated with honors in 1966. Afterwards he became the first African American admitted to and to graduate from Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine. 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.
Watkins became the first Black chief resident in cardiac surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital after medical school. Watkins fought for equal opportunities in education throughout his career, increasing minority enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine by 400% in four years. He received the Thurgood Marshall College Fund award for excellence in medicine in 2010. In 2013, Dr. Watkins retired from John Hopkins after four decades.
A behind-the-scenes political figure and civil rights activist who broke many racial barriers, Dr. Watkins was known as much for fighting the injustice faced by African Americans as for his groundbreaking medical work. Watkins was outspoken yet humble. He never took his success for granted and worked tirelessly to help create the next generation of African American doctors and activists. Born in Kansas, the third of six children, he grew up in Alabama where he got his first taste of the civil rights movement, meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at age eight when he and his family attended Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where King was pastor.
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 will be held in Baltimore at 1 pm on Tuesday, April 21, at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave., with visitation from 11 am to 1 pm. At press time, a service at Vanderbilt was being planned.