By Donald V. Watkins Copyrighted and Published on May 28, 2019; Updated and Republished on September 1, 2023
On May 29, 1966, The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) published an article announcing the acceptance of the “first Negro ever accepted by Vanderbilt University’s school of medicine.”
His name was Levi Watkins, Jr. He was my brother. He was also a Bridge-Builder. This is his incredible story. In 1962, Levi was the co-valedictorian of his 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, Levi graduated from Tennessee State University with a 3.7 GPA on a 4.0 grading system. He was also the student government president at TSU. An April 1, 1966 letter from Dr. Randolph Batson, director of medical affairs, to Dr. F. Tremaine Billings, dean of the medical school, described Levi this way: “I think we will not have a better opportunity to get a better qualified Negro student in a long time." When publicly announcing Levi’s acceptance, Vanderbilt stressed that the university accepted students “purely on qualifications.” Even though Levi was accepted at other prestigious medical schools around the nation, he was denied admission to The University of Alabama at Birmingham's medical school in 1966 because of his race. Levi’s experience at Vanderbilt was challenging. While he mastered the academic course of study fairly quickly, Levi caught pure hell from fellow students who resented his presence at the medical school.
Levi’s worst experience came when he exited his dormitory one day, and a fellow student emptied a full can of garbage on him from a second-floor window. Levi returned to his room, quickly cleaned himself up, and hurried to class. Nothing these students did to Levi broke his spirit or distracted him from graduating with honors. After graduation, Levi began his medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, he became chief resident of cardiac surgery, acting as the first African American chief resident at the university. Levi eventually became a world-famous heart surgeon and associate dean at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Levi left Johns Hopkins in 1973 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. Levi’s research work at Harvard contributed to the safety and efficiency of the drug. Levi 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. In February 1980, Levi implanted the first defibrillator at a time when many white Johns Hopkins University Hospital cardiac patients did not want a black heart surgeon, who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine (twice), to perform life-saving surgery on them. Levi overlooked their bigotry, loved them as human beings, and saved their lives anyway. In 1993, my 82-year-old father, Dr. Levi Watkins Sr., had a stroke and required vascular surgery. My siblings and I requested that Levi perform the surgery, as we knew he was the best cardiac surgeon in America. Levi prayed before the surgery, did his job, and performed successful surgery on my dad. He promised us an extra year of life for our father and he delivered on that promise. Today, more than 3 million people worldwide are walking around with implantable defibrillators that were developed by the pioneering medical research of Drs. Michel Mirowski, Morton Mower, William Staewen, and Levi Watkins, Jr. The device, which detects arrhythmia in the heart and emits an electric charge to correct it, prevents sudden death from an irregular heartbeat. In 1982, Levi personally recruited a young, gifted black Alabama native named Selwyn M. Vickers to Johns Hopkins as a medical student. Levi mentored Vickers daily on the rigors of medical school and life. Levi’s long and close friendship and mentorship with Vickers paid off when, in 2013, Dr. Vickers was selected as the first African-American dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham school of medicine, the very school that refused to admit Levi as a medical student in 1966 because of his race. On April 8, 1993, PBS’ “New Explorers” series aired a documentary on Levi’s life and his innovative medical research. Titled, “A Dream Fulfilled,” the documentary chronicled the intersection of Levi’s civil rights advocacy with his experiences as a pioneer in medical research. Levi’s mantra in life was, “Loves sees no color.” Levi died on April 11, 2015. He was 70-years-old. He embodied a six-generation Watkins family tradition – standing up for what is right, even when it is unpopular to do so. The Watkins family established scholarships in Levi's name for college students at Alabama State University (Montgomery, Alabama), LeMoyne-Owen College (Memphis, Tennessee), Tennessee State University (Nashville, Tennessee), Vanderbilt University (Nashville), Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia), and Johns Hopkins Medical School (Baltimore, Maryland).
On June 8, 2023, Johns Hopkins Medical Center dedicated its new Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D. Outpatient Center in honor of Levi's life long work in medicine and civil rights.
The Watkins family is proud of "UV Med School's 1st Negro." He lives on in every patient who has an implantable defibrillator that is keeping him/her alive.
“Let your work speak for you .... and you’ll never have to say anything about yourself.” -- Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D. No truer words have ever been spoken.