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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

60 Years Ago, This Tennessee State University Student Demanded Academic Excellence at His College and Got It

Updated: Apr 9

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on April 8, 2024


In Memoriam to Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., MD -- June 13, 1944 to April 11, 2015


Sixty years ago, Levi Watkins, Jr., was a candidate for president of the Student Government Association at Tennessee State University (TSU).  Levi campaigned on a platform that demanded the highest levels of "Academic Excellence" at the university.


Levi thought the university’s sports teams, band, drama club, and other non-academic groups were receiving national and international publicity, while academically talented students received little to no recognition.

 

Levi won the election!  


There was jubilation on campus. Levi's campaign team, which included Harold Ford, Sr., who would later become Tennessee’s first black Congressman since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, was ecstatic.

IMAGE: Levi Watkins, Jr., and Harold Ford (far right) celebrate his SGA presidential victory with two other honor students.

President Walter S. Davis responded by establishing the University Honors Program. The first two directors were Drs. McDonald Williams and George Gore, who are pictured below with Levi.  Dr. Gore, founder of Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society, was Dean of Faculty at TSU before becoming the legendary President of Florida A&M University.


At last month’s Honors College 60th Anniversary Celebration Convocation at TSU, Levi was recognized for his contribution to the university.  The Levi Watkins Jr. Institute Scholars were present along with over 800 students who were recognized for academic excellence.

 

After his graduation from TSU in 1966, Levi broke ground as the first black student to enter and graduate from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

 

“All my work since the integration of Vanderbilt University has been about inclusion, equity and opportunity,” Levi said in an interview with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, whose all-white medical school denied him admission in 1966.

 

Levi co-developed and successfully implanted an automatic defibrillator in the first human patient on Feb. 4, 1980, at Johns Hopkins University Hospital.  The device, which detects arrhythmia in the heart and emits an electric charge to correct it, had been developed at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.  


Modern versions of the defibrillator are implanted in as many as 100,000 patients in the United States every year.

 

Levi was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering work with the defibrillator. Levi and I were together when the first nomination came from Stockholm, Sweden.


The two of us quietly celebrated this monumental achievement at Levi's Baltimore home while reminiscing about the racism we had overcome while growing up in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s and 60s. We also reminisced about Levi's unforgettable experiences in desegregating Vanderbilt's medical school and mine in desegregating the University of Alabama's law school.


In latter years, Levi served on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust for eight years. He received the Vanderbilt Medal of Honor in 1998 and was Vanderbilt School of Medicine Alumnus of the Year in 2008.

 

On April 11, 2015, Levi died while welcoming new students (in this case fellows) to Johns Hopkins Medical School. The photo below captures Levi's attendance at this event.

IMAGE: Levi Watkins (third from the right) welcomes new applicants for medical fellows to Johns Hopkins Medical School on April 11, 2015.

Today, John Hopkins Medicine honors Levi with his name on its Outpatient Center.


Additional information about Levi and his work with the defibrillator is shown in this PBS documentary.


6 comentarii

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Kamar Jones
Kamar Jones
09 apr.

I agree that academic excellence is undervalued in the African American Community. An example is that black engineers make up only 3.3% of total engineers in the US. The African American population makes up more than 13%. It's a small number compared to other minority groups. African Americans value entertainment and athletics over academic achievement. African Americans make up most of the NBA and NFL players but lag in front-office jobs and ownership.


It is puzzling that we lack awareness of Dr. Levi Watkins's accomplishments in medicine but would know what underwear Michael Jordan wore and how many points, assists, and rebounds he had in a game 30 years ago. (I'm exaggerating about the underwear). If we shift this ty…

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Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
09 apr.

The amount of goodwill that flows to the Watkins family from the growing reservoir of heart patients around the world who have defibrillators implanted in their bodies has been incalculable. We use it to continue our family's six-generation mission as "bridge-builders" who work everyday to uplift humanity.

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modelramsey
09 apr.
Evaluat(ă) cu 5 din 5 stele.

GREAT MAN! Thank you for your words of wisdom and encouragement Dr. Levi.

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Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
08 apr.

My advice to young college students is simple:  Throughout your careers, you can chase material things, or you can pursue academic excellence.  When it is all said and done, nobody will remember the type of car you drove or the size of your home.  Everybody around the world will remember the positive impact you made on humanity.

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Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
08 apr.

We can have academic excellence at every K-12 public school and state college and university, if we simply demand it. This student demanded it at Tennessee State University and got it.

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