BlackFacts Details

Watkins, Dr. Levi, Jr. (1944-2015)

Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. was a cardiac surgeon who, in 1980, performed the first implantation of an automatic defibrillator into a human heart. He was also a professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Watkins was born in Parsons, Kansas, but grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. He attended the First Baptist Church, and became close friends with the Pastor, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy. He later attended the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he met Dr. Martin Luther King, who had recently begun preaching there. Inspired by King, and dismayed at the prejudices of Jim Crow Alabama, Watkins became involved in the civil rights movement. He joined the King-supervised Crusaders youth group and drove parishioners to the church in a station wagon so they could boycott the city’s segregated bus system in 1956.

Watkins entered Tennessee State University in 1962. He eventually became president of the student body, majored in biology, and graduated with honors in 1966. That May, he became the first African American admitted to the Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville. Studying at Vanderbilt was a lonely, isolating experience, and when King was murdered in 1968, Watkins was still the only black student at the school. Despite the prejudice he encountered there, he in 1970 became the first African American to graduate from Vanderbilt.

Later that year Watkins moved to Baltimore, where he became the first black intern at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Between 1973 and 1975, he studied at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Physiology, performing breakthrough research into the role of the renin angiotensin system in congestive heart failure. When he returned to Johns Hopkins in 1975, he became the first black chief resident in heart surgery at the university.

Watkins performed the first implantation of an automatic defibrillator in February 1980. Joining a team working on the device that included Michel Mirowksi, Morton Mower, and William Staewen,