By Jill L. Newmark and Margaret A. Hutto
In an operating room at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, February 1980, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a young African American cardiac surgeon made history when he stopped the heart of a 57 year old woman and successful implanted the first automatic cardiac defibrillator. From his humble roots in Montgomery, Alabama to the hallowed halls of Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Watkins was a trailblazer, medical pioneer, and civil rights activist. In the early morning hours of April 11, 2015, Dr. Watkins passed away at his beloved Johns Hopkins Hospital.
It was a fall morning in October 2006, when we first met Dr. Watkins. We arrived at his office on the campus of Johns Hopkins University to conduct an oral history interview as part of our research for the exhibition Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons. This world-renowned cardiac surgeon greeted us warmly and made us feel comfortable and welcomed. He was impeccably dressed in his trademark bold, bright tie and a handkerchief in his front suit pocket. He was approachable, open, honest, and passionate in his responses, willingly sharing the most difficult and the most triumphant events of his life and work.
Dr. Watkins shared his experiences as a young man in Montgomery, Alabama where he was baptized by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. “King and Abernathy,” he says, “provided in me the fundamental tenets of community, of democracy, of activism, and of spiritual love for everybody.” These experiences during the nascent Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, shaped the young Levi Watkins. “Spirituality and principles of humanity were among the first things I learned from him,” Watkins remarked when speaking of Dr. King. His parents Levi and Lillian Watkins, instilled in him the values of “education, honesty, integrity and character.” His family, his community and his church were the foundations for his deep faith, his commitment to social justice, his compassion, and his humanity.
Pursuing his medical degree in 1966, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Watkins broke down racial barriers as the first African American admitted to the medical school and its first black graduate. “Growing up in Alabama,” Watkins remarked, “gave me a consciousness of what should be happening to black people, and I felt it was time Vanderbilt was integrated.” He endured physical and verbal abuse and described it as “a lonely and isolating experience.” But Watkins believed that “God had his agenda already planned because years later he [God] transformed that little lonely experience into a situation where the whole school became diversified.” Today, Dr. Watkins’ portrait is displayed at the university, a professorship is named in his honor, and the Levi Watkins, Jr. Lecture on Diversity in Medical Education is an annual event.
Dr. Watkins did not stop there. In 1970, when he arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he was, as he described, a “bright-eyed intern”, but the segregation that he endured and left behind in Montgomery, was clear and visible to him in Baltimore. At Johns Hopkins, although desegregation had begun, diversity at all levels of the hospital was non-existent. Diversity became a life-long focus for Dr. Watkins throughout his career. During a four year period and largely due to his efforts, the number of minority students attending the university’s School of Medicine increased by 400%. For Dr. Watkins, his work in diversifying Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was among his greatest accomplishments.
His efforts to create a sense of community and healing led him, together with Dr. Gregory Branch, to form Unified Voices, a gospel choir made up of Hopkins staff and members of the East Baltimore community. The National Library of Medicine was privileged to have both Dr. Watkins and Unified Voices at the library for an evening of faith, hope and healing as a part of the Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons exhibition events in April 2007.
From our first meeting with Dr. Watkins in 2006 through our continued contact with him over the last nine years, we have been humbled by his unwavering generosity, enthusiasm, and deep commitment to faith, healing, diversity and social justice. Beyond his brilliance as a cardiac surgeon and his contributions to the advancement of medicine, he has been a sterling example of faith, hope, integrity and character. His influence on our exhibition and on the people he touched will live on to inspire future generations to come.
Jill L. Newmark is an Exhibition Specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine and co-curator of Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons.
Margaret A. Hutto is the co-curator of Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons, the former Exhibition Specialist at the National Library of Medicine, and the former Exhibits Manager at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.