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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Denied Admission to UA Medical School, an Undeterred Levi Watkins, Jr., Soldiered On to Co-Develop the Cardioverter Defibrillator and Implant the First One in a Human Patient

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on March 6, 2024

IMAGE: Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., MD (1944-2015)

If you are one of the 200,000 heart patients each year who received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator to detect irregular heart beats and automatically correct them, you must see this New Explorers video. A&E Network/PBS first aired the documentary below nationwide in 1993.

Television producer and news anchor Bill Kurtis narrates the inspirational story of the first defibrillator implanted in a human patient in 1980. The operation was performed by Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., MD, an Alabama native and renown Johns Hopkins Medical Center heart surgeon.

In 1962, Dr. Watkins was the co-valedictorian of his graduating class at Alabama State Laboratory High School (an honor he shared with his best friend for life, Dr. Norman W. Walton, III, a renowned dermatologist). In 1966, Watkins graduated from Tennessee State University (TSU) with a 3.7 GPA on a 4.0 grading system. He was also the student government president at TSU.


During his senior year at TSU, Watkins applied for admission to the University of Alabama School of Medicine. He was denied entry into the University's medical school solely because of his race. 

In 1966, Dr. Watkins became the first Black medical student admitted to Vanderbilt Medical School, where he graduated with honors in 1970.

After graduation from Vanderbilt, Watkins began his medical residency at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. There, he became chief resident of cardiac surgery, acting as the first Black chief resident at the university. Watkins eventually became Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

In 1973, Dr. Watkins left Johns Hopkins for Harvard University where he researched the use of angiotensin blockers in cases of congestive heart failure. Angiotensin blockers were created in order to avoid the side effects of ACE inhibitors, which were previously the drug of choice for lowering blood pressure and treating congestive heart failure. Watkins’ research work at Harvard contributed to the safety and efficiency of the drug.

Dr. Watkins returned to Johns Hopkins in 1975 to continue the pioneering medical research on the implantable defibrillator that had been started by Drs. Michel Mirowski, Morton Mower, and William Staewen.

This New Explorers documentary chronicles Watkins’ co-development and successful implantation of the first cardioverter defibrillator in a human patient. 


Dr. Watkins died on April 11, 2015, but a piece of him lives on in the estimated 3 million patients around the world who have defibrillators implanted in their bodies to keep their hearts beating in a regular rhythm.


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Danny Madden
Danny Madden
Mar 29

Donald, hello, my name is Agnes Marie Mckean, my D.O.B is April 8 1970, my father was Daniel Mckean. I'm in quite a conundrum. To say I've been targeted is an understatement and I am in dire need of assistance. I've been profiled to look like or to be conceived of being a criminal lunatic, but I assure you I am not. I understand that I bare a striking resemblance to Mary Magdalene and my Dad would remind me to never forget who I am, that I come from royalty. Also, my blood is extremely rare, and I am allergic to silver. Fact. If you could contact me on my friend's phone. I can't keep a phone to sav…


Kamar Jones
Kamar Jones
Mar 06
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

It amazes me the perseverance of our people. Admitted to Vanderbilt but passed by the University of Alabama clearly shows the racial prejudice is a cancer that's going to take our country down a tier if we continue allowing it. The similarities between you and your older brother is crazy. Mannerism, voice, and physical features. He was a great man. My team at Mine+ thinks highly of you and your family.


Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
Mar 06

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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