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Barrier Breaker

A pioneering surgeon and civil rights icon, Levi Watkins Jr. left a lasting legacy.

Levi Watkins Jr., a pioneer in both cardiac surgery and civil rights who implanted the first automatic heart defibrillator in a patient and was instrumental in recruiting minority students to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, significantly enhancing the institution’s diversity, died April 10 in The Johns Hopkins Hospital of complications from a stroke. He was 70.

“Levi was such an important role model in the minority community. His work went so far beyond the hospital,” says Duke Cameron, cardiac surgeon-in-charge in The Johns Hopkins Hospital and professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “There are just so many people—nonmedical people—who saw Levi Watkins as somebody they were so incredibly proud of. And he was a spiritual leader for them too. He probably spoke at more churches than medical meetings.”

“Levi remained as powerful a presence and as important an influence on Johns Hopkins as he was when he arrived here in 1970 as a general surgery intern,” says Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Johns Hopkins’ first black chief resident in cardiac surgery, Watkins played a pivotal part in changing the institution’s role in medical education from his earliest days. In 1975, he helped launch a concerted nationwide drive to recruit talented minority students who were interested in studying medicine. Within a few years, Johns Hopkins was attracting black students from all over the nation who were convinced by Watkins that Johns Hopkins wanted them. The success of the Johns Hopkins minority recruitment campaign soon made it a model imitated by other medical schools.

In 1980, Watkins gained renown for implanting the first automatic heart defibrillator in a patient suffering from repeated, life-threatening episodes of ventricular fibrillation, or irregular heartbeats. Such a procedure now is commonplace, saving untold lives annually.

In 2006, Watkins’ then-35 year career at Johns Hopkins was celebrated with a mammoth reception. At that celebration, Watkins recalled: “I came up when color was everything.” Gazing at the diverse crowd gathered to applaud him, he said, “But looking out at all of you today, I don’t see color at all.”      

Watkins, who retired in December 2013, was present last Jan. 9 when Rothman and Peterson presided over the official unveiling of his oil portrait (shown here) during the medical institution’s 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event, which had been founded by Watkins in 1982 and he continued to host every year. He died just a week after the portrait was formally installed in the Division of Cardiac Surgery, says Cameron. “Levi died among his friends and colleagues, and was cared for by people whose careers he inspired and deeply influenced.”

Barrier Breaker