Watkins, Levi Jr. 1945–
Levi Watkins, Jr. 1945–
In February of 1980 Levi Watkins, Jr., one of the nation’s top cardiac specialists and a member of the faculty at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, introduced a revolutionary surgical procedure that has saved the lives of thousands of patients who suffer from arrhythmia, a sudden interruption in the natural rhythm of the heart which prevents it from pumping blood. The operation involves the implantation of a small, electronic device known as the Automatic Implantable Defibrillator (AID), which automatically detects irregular rhythms and shocks the heart back to life.
In addition to performing dozens of these delicate procedures, Watkins has conducted groundbreaking research into the causes and treatment of congestive heart failure, and as a member of the State of Maryland’s Minority Health Commission, directed a major research project aimed at reducing the incidence of heart disease among black Americans.
The first black student to attend and graduate from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, as well as the first black physician to serve as chief resident in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins, Watkins sees himself as an important role model for young, black doctors. In 1979 his concern over the shortage of minority students and faculty at Johns Hopkins prompted him to become a member of the university’s admissions committee.
Within four years, Watkins helped to increase minority enrollment by more than 400 percent. By the 1990s he was devoting nearly as much time to recruiting qualified black applicants as he was to his surgical practice. An early beneficiary of the civil rights movement, he wants to ensure that other young blacks receive the same quality of medical education as he did. “We have to model roads, highways, and byways so that young blacks can get where we did without having to deal with the same problems we did,” he said in an interview in Black Enterprise.
The third of six children, Levi Watkins, Jr., was born in Parsons, Kansas, in 1945 and moved with his family to Montgomery, Alabama, when he was still an infant. His father, a college professor, later became president of Alabama State University. As a child, Watkins attended the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, where he became close friends with his pastor, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy. During his high school years he became a member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and at King’s request, drove
Born Levi Watkins, Jr., June 13,1945, in Parsons, KS; son of Levi Watkins, Sr. (an educator). Education: Tennessee State University, B.S. (with honors), 1966; Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, M.D., 1970.
Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD, intern, 1970–71, assistant resident, 1971–73 and 1975–77, chief resident in cardiac surgery, 1977–78; Harvard University Medical School, Cambridge, MA, research fellow, 1973–75; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, assistant professor of surgery, 1978–84, member of admissions committee, 1979—, associate professor of surgery, 1984–91, professor of cardiac surgery, 1991—, assistant dean, 1991—. Robert Wood Johnson Minority Faculty Development Program, national board member, 1983—; United Negro College Fund advisory board, 1985—; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute cardiology advisory committee, 1990—.
Member: Association for Academic Surgery, American College of Surgeons, Society of University Surgeons, Johns Hopkins Minority Faculty Association (president), Physicians for Human Rights, New York Academy of Science, American Medical Association, National Medical Association.
Selected awards: Named one of America’s Top 15 Black Physicians, Ebony magazine, 1983, and Black Enterprise magazine, 1989; Man of the Year, Howard University, 1984; Baltimore’s Best Citizen Award, 1985; Humanitarian Physician Award, American Red Cross, 1987; Anniversary Centennial Award, Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1990; Most Distinguished Black Marylander Award, Towson State University, 1990.
Addresses: Office —Blalock 618, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, 600 North Wolfe Street, Baltimore, MD 21205.
the church station wagon on Sunday mornings. Inspired by King’s appeals for racial equality and peaceful protest, Watkins played an active role in the Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s. King later became his hero, and a poster of the civil rights leader hung on his dormitory door at Vanderbilt University Medical School for four years.
After graduating as valedictorian from Alabama State Laboratory High School in 1962, Watkins went on to study biology at Tennessee State University in Nashville. Here he became active in a variety of political movements on campus and was elected president of the student government association. Although he had originally intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a college professor, during his junior year Watkins had a sudden change of heart. “All of a sudden I just decided teaching wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he recalled in an interview with Wanda Dobson of the Baltimore Evening Sun. “I wanted to be a doctor.”
Once he had made the decision to go to medical school, Watkins realized that it was up to him to blaze a trail for other talented, young blacks whose educational and professional options were limited by racial discrimination. In May of 1966 he became the first black ever to be admitted to Vanderbilt University Medical School. He learned of his acceptance from a front-page headline in the Nashville Tennessean. “Growing up in Alabama gave me a consciousness of what should be happening to black people, and I felt it was time Vanderbilt was integrated,” he told Dobson. Although he was the only black medical student on campus for the next four years, his experiences at Vanderbilt were, for the most part, positive, and ’the institution later honored him by selecting him for membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society.
After earning his M.D., Watkins felt so comfortable at Vanderbilt that he considered staying there to do his internship. However, the chief of surgery at Vanderbilt urged him to aim higher and provided him with a strong recommendation to Johns Hopkins, one of the two most prestigious medical schools in the nation. Watkins was quickly admitted, and arrived there in the fall of 1970 to begin his surgical internship. Although he was impressed by the caliber of training he received at Johns Hopkins, he was angered and dismayed by the shortage of minority students and faculty, and resolved to one day do something about it.
In 1973 Watkins interrupted his surgical training at Johns Hopkins to complete two years of cardiac research at Harvard Medical School. It was here, after months of laboratory investigation, that he made his first scientific breakthrough, defining the role of the renin angiotensin system in congestive heart failure. His research ultimately led to the use of angiotensin blockers in the treatment of heart failure. While at Harvard, he received an award from the Black Scientists’ Society for both his research and his contributions to the community.
Watkins returned to Johns Hopkins in 1975 to complete his surgical residency and three years later became the institution’s first black chief resident in cardiac surgery. In July of 1978 he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of surgery and in 1991 was promoted to the rank of full professor of cardiac surgery, becoming the first black to hold this position at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In September of 1991 he was named dean for postdoctoral programs and faculty development.
Seven months after joining the surgical team at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Watkins performed the groundbreaking operation that launched his career and earned him the respect and admiration of the international medical community. On February 4,1980, he implanted the Automatic Implantable Defibrillator, a life-saving electronic device developed over a 12-year period by Dr. Michel Mirowski of Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital, into the body of a 54-year-old California woman who would otherwise have died from cardiac arrest. Since that time, he has performed the same procedure on dozens of patients from around the world.
During the operation, the AID, a small, battery-powered device about the size of a cigarette pack, with two electrodes attached, is implanted in the patient’s upper abdomen. One of the electrodes is inserted into the right chamber of the heart in order to monitor the heart’s electrical signals. The other is attached to a patch at the tip of the heart. Should the heart go into arrhythmia and cease pumping blood, the device detects it within 30 seconds and shocks the heart back to its normal rhythm.
Nearly 500,000 people die each year because of arrhythmia, making it the second leading killer in the United States. “There are women out there who are afraid to let their husbands out of sight because of a fear of them dropping dead from the disorder,” Watkins said in an interview in Ebony. “There are people who come in here with burns all over their chests where firemen or policemen have defibrill-ated them on the street. There are cardiologists who have a patient that drops dead suddenly and there’s nothing they can do—nothing. That’s why it’s so good that the device is now available.” In order to qualify for an implantation, patients must already have survived one episode of “sudden death” and be unresponsive to medication.
Since performing the first human implantation of the AID in 1980, Watkins has developed a number of new procedures that make it possible to implant the device with minimal surgical intervention. He has also played a major role in developing the cardiac arrhythmia service at Johns Hopkins, which uses a variety of specialized open-heart techniques to treat patients at risk of sudden cardiac death. Some 90 percent of the patients who have undergone treatment through the service have been protected against cardiac arrest.
Although Watkins built his reputation on his pioneering work as a cardiac surgeon, since 1979 he has divided his time between the operating room at Johns Hopkins, where he continues to perform a variety of innovative open-heart procedures, and dozens of college campuses around the country, which he visits each year in an intensive drive to locate and recruit the best black medical students in the nation. “When I joined the faculty [at Johns Hopkins] in 1978, there were two or three black students in each class of the medical school, and I felt that was ridiculous and morally wrong, especially given the shortage of black doctors in this country,” he said in an interview with the Evening Sun.
In 1983 it was estimated that only 2.2 percent of the nation’s physicians were black. This meant that only one black physician existed for every 4,100 blacks, in contrast to a physician-patient ratio of one to 538 among the white population. One of the reasons for this desperate shortage, Watkins believes, has been the failure of medical schools to actively recruit black students.
In 1978 only eight black students qualified for acceptance at Johns Hopkins, and only four enrolled. Many of the best minority candidates were not even bothering to apply. Then, in 1979, Watkins became a member of the medical school admissions committee. Together with Dr. Earl Kidwell, Jr., an opthalmologist and instructor at the university’s Wilmer Eye Institute and the only other black member of the admissions board, he managed to convince Hopkins officials to permit special recruitment of blacks. After winning official approval, the two began an exhaustive, highly organized campaign to attract the highest-caliber minority students in the nation. In addition to visiting college campuses around the country, they wrote thousands of personal letters encouraging students to apply to Hopkins.
One of the first issues Watkins addressed in his appeal to black premedical students was the mistaken impression that many had about Johns Hopkins. The university was not, he maintained, an ivory tower cut off from the problems and challenges of the inner city, but rather a vital and diversified institution situated in a predominantly black area of East Baltimore, where students could serve as role models for the community while receiving the best medical education in the world.
Watkins’s efforts paid off the following year, when the admissions committee accepted nearly three times as many blacks for the 1979 class as it had for 1978. Over the next four years, minority enrollment continued to climb, and in May of 1983, as many as 14 blacks out of a total of 121 students received their diplomas at the medical school’s graduation ceremony. This made it the largest class of black physicians in the university’s history.
Many of the new black graduates credited Watkins and his persistent appeals with their decision to attend Johns Hopkins. “I was impressed with what he was trying to do,” said student Lisa Egbuonu in an interview with the Evening Sun. “He told us that the community would want us, [and] there would be that support.” In an article in Ebony, Watkins described his own motives for recruiting minority doctors, and his hopes and fears for the future. “It is very important for us to have black doctors,” he said. “It’s no secret that most black people are treated by black doctors and there aren’t enough. I worry about black health care. I also worry about black children who need to see black doctors as role models. So I didn’t bring black people here to benefit Johns Hopkins. Hopkins was doing just fine. I brought black people here so they could benefit individually and as a group from all the technical expertise around here. I brought them here for black people.”
Watkins has also participated in a special program at Baltimore’s Dunbar High School designed to interest students—especially minorities—in entering the health professions. In 1983 Watkins was appointed to the national board of the Robert Wood Johnson Minority Faculty Development Program, an organization that seeks to increase the number of minority faculty in American medical schools. He has also served on the boards of numerous professional and governmental organizations, including the State of Maryland Minority Health Commission, the State of Maryland’s Panel for Coronary Bypass Surgery, and the United Negro College Fund, and over the years has received hundreds of academic, professional, and community service awards. In 1983 he was included in a list of the Top 15 Black Physicians in the United States compiled by the editors of Ebony magazine.
During the 1980s Watkins’s deep commitment to racial equality and worldwide human rights prompted him to initiate an annual birthday tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The program, which honors King but also focuses on global humanitarian issues, has featured dozens of distinguished leaders from around the world, including Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu; Zenani Mandela D’Lamini, daughter of Nelson and Winnie Mandela; Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King III; civil rights leader Rosa Parks; Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; and singer Harry Belafonte.
Many pillars of the black community have become Watkins’s personal friends and enjoy the warmth and hospitality of his harborside townhouse in the racially and economically diversified Canton section of Baltimore. It is here, and on the deck of his 25-foot powerboat, that the busy surgeon can relax, reflect, and escape the pressures of the day. “Without the water, I’d have big-time hypertension,” he joked in an interview with Charles Barker of Baltimore magazine. “The water is the way I cool out…. I spread out my papers, put on some jazz, and rock back and forth with the waves and the music.”
Baltimore Magazine, April 1988.
Black Enterprise, October 1988, p. 58.
Ebony, January 1982, pp. 96–100.
Evening Sun, April 8, 1979; August 15, 1980; May 22, 1983; February 24, 1987; April 22, 1987.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
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