DR. LEVI WATKINS JR.
Cardiac Surgery Pioneer + Activist
Tennessee State University Alumnus
STORYTELLER OF THE YEAR AWARDEE, 2015
Known, not only for his groundbreaking medical achievements like the creation and implantation of the Automatic Implantable Defibrillator (AID), long before Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. was the first black chief resident of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he was a student at Nashville’s Tennessee A & I State University.
Born in Kansas and raised in Alabama where his father Levi Sr. served as the sixth president of the then-Alabama State College and now-Alabama State University, Watkins knew Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as his pastor when he was a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. While he was an undergraduate student at Tennessee State, Watkins studied biology, served as student government president and was initiated into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated’s Beta Omicron chapter, as was his father. Following graduation, Watkins made history when became the first African American to be admitted to and graduate from Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine. On campus at Vanderbilt, he was the victim of racist attacks which forced him to secure housing for a time at nearby Meharry Medical College. He often described this first, of many milestones in his life, as “lonely.” After graduating from medical school in 1970, Dr. Watkins started a general surgery residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1971, where he became the first black chief resident of cardiac surgery. Fighting for equal opportunities in education throughout his career, he helped to increase minority enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine by 400 percent in four years. A political figure and civil rights activist, Watkins performed the world’s first human implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator in February 1980. In addition to developing several different techniques for the implantation of the device, Dr. Watkins also helped to develop the cardiac arrhythmia service before retiring in 2013, after four decades of medical groundbreaking service and racial barrier breaking activism. Following his death on April 11, 2015, his unparalleled legacy lives on Johns Hopkins and at hospital across the nation and world who utilize open-heart techniques to treat patients at risk of sudden cardiac death–saving thousands of lives and inspiring countless others.