Footprints Through Time: Levi Watkins, Jr. (1945- )
Levi Watkins, Jr. was born in Parsons, Kansas, the third of six children. His father was a college professor who moved the family to Alabama for a job with Alabama State University. The minister of the family's church in Montgomery was Dr. Ralph Abernathy, the civil rights leader. In high school, Watkins joined the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At Dr. King's request, Watkins drove the church station wagon on Sunday mornings. He played an active role in the Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s.
Watkins attended Tennessee State University and, inspired by what he'd seen at Dr. King's side, "felt it was time Vanderbilt was integrated." In May 1966 he became the first African American ever admitted to Vanderbilt University's medical school. He learned that he was accepted from a headline in the Nashville Tennessean.
In 1970, Watkins began a surgical internship at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. During the period 1973 to 1975, he interrupted his surgical training to conduct cardiac research at Harvard Medical School. His research on the role of the renin angiotensin system in congestive heart failure was a breakthrough, and led to the use of angiotensin blockers in treating heart failure.
After returning to Hopkins, he became the university's first black chief resident in cardiac surgery. In 1978 Watkins joined the faculty as an associate professor. In 1979 he joined the medical school's admissions committee, intent on broadening the participation of minorities. In just four years, minority representation quadrupled among students, and had grown similarly among the faculty's ranks. In 1983, he was appointed to the national board of the Robert Wood Johnson Minority Faculty Development Program, which aims to increase the number of minority faculty members across the country.
Soon after joining the surgical team at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Watkins performed an operation that attracted the notice of the international medical community. In February 1980, he became the first surgeon to implant an automatic implantable defibrillator into a human heart. This treatment has since saved the lives of over 100,000 people.
In 1991, Watkins was promoted to full professor of cardiac surgery, and within months was appointed dean for postdoctoral programs and faculty development for the medical school. In that capacity he has transformed postdoctoral education in America. His life has been featured in magazines and national television programs.
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