Levi Watkins, pioneer in cardiac surgery, dies

Famed cardiologist and fighter against racial injustice dies.

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a noted Johns Hopkins cardiac surgeon, behind-the-scenes political figure and civil rights activist who broke many racial barriers, died Friday from a massive heart attack and stroke, relatives said Saturday.

The 70-year-old Dr. Watkins, the first black chief resident of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was known as much for fighting the injustice faced by African-Americans as for his groundbreaking medical work.

"Levi was a son of the South who was birthed in the middle of segregationist America and the middle of a civil rights movement and became somebody who defied the limits of the expectations of him," said former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who first met Dr. Watkins in the 1980s on a picket line calling for better treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

Dr. Watkins was outspoken yet humble, those who knew him said. He never took his success for granted and worked tirelessly to help create the next generation of African-American doctors and activists.

He became the first to put an automatic defibrillator in a human heart in 1980 — at a time he was also fighting to diversify the medical staff and student ranks at Hopkins.

Dr. Watkins was one of the chief residents in surgery when Dr. Ben Carson, a retired Hopkins neurosurgeon who is now considering a run for president, first came to the medical school. "He was a mentor and subsequently became a great friend. His contributions to cardiac surgery will be legendary. And we will miss him greatly," Dr. Carson said.

The Rev. A.C.D. Vaughn, senior pastor at Sharon Baptist Church in Baltimore, said Dr. Watkins "took a stand everywhere he went. He was very symbolic of the real hope of black people. His life shows if you are willing to do the work, you could achieve what you wanted."

Dr. Watkins was born in Kansas, the third of six children, but grew up in Alabama, where he got his first taste of the civil rights movement. He met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the age of 8 when he and his family attended Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Dr. King was the pastor. When he grew older, Dr. Watkins would act as a driver, shuttling the pastor around town. Disheartened by the injustices he saw, Dr. Watkins would later join Dr. King's movement,

He attended Tennessee State University as an undergraduate, studying biology. He then made history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he became the first African-American to study and graduate from the school with a medical degree. It was an experience he described over the years as isolating and lonely, but would be the first of many milestones.

After graduating from Vanderbilt, Dr. Watkins started a general surgery residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1971, where he became the first black chief resident of cardiac surgery. He left Baltimore for two years to conduct cardiac research at Harvard Medical School before returning to Johns Hopkins.

He was a pioneer in open-heart surgical techniques and made many improvements in the defibrillator over the years. In 1991, he became a professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean of Hopkins' medical school. He retired in 2013.

"Levi was known far and wide for his pioneering surgical work, his mentorship to so many young people, his advocacy for minorities and his service as a role model," Duke Cameron, cardiac surgeon-in-charge at Johns Hopkins hospital and professor of surgery at the school of medicine, said in a statement released by Hopkins. "And he was a powerful spiritual leader to countless others. He probably spoke at as many churches as he did at medical meetings."

His contributions to the medical school reached far beyond his surgeries. As a member of the admissions committee, he helped to significantly increase enrollment among minorities. In a four-year period, minority representation increased by 400 percent. He also served as a mentor and advocate for the students once they came to campus.

When he arrived at Hopkins, Dr. Watkins noticed that there were not a lot of other African-American residents or medical students, said his oldest sister, Annie Marie Garraway of Ohio. Most of the people who looked like him worked in the cafeteria and other service jobs.

"He said from Day One he would do what he could to change that," she said. "Especially because so many of their patients were from the African-American community. That was striking for him."

She added, "He never forgot the humble roots where our grandparents started and was very aware of the sacrifices to get where he was. He never felt he was above speaking to the person who might have been thought to have the lowest-level job."

Ronald R. Peterson, president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said Watkins made the medical institution a better place.

"It is inarguable that Levi's impact on our hospital — on its culture, on its care — will endure, just as will our immense admiration for him and thanks for all that he did here," Peterson said in a statement.

The pastor of Union Baptist Church in Baltimore, where Dr. Watkins was a member for 40 years, said his medical gift helped him narrow the gulf between different communities.

"He really bridged the gap from the civil rights era to the modern era," said the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. "What he demonstrated to us is that academic scholarship was the passport. All through his amazing career he was always making ways for others to progress to higher academic achievement."

Dr. Watkins also created the Martin Luther King Jr. annual commemoration at Hopkins in tribute to the man whose teachings helped shape the way he looked at the world. It was a highly anticipated social event that attracted high-profile figures both locally and nationally.

At the event last year, in its 33rd year, Hopkins officials unveiled an oil portrait of Watkins. He died just a week after the portrait was formally installed in the Division of Cardiac Surgery, Hopkins officials said.

Dr. King wasn't the only famous person Dr. Watkins developed close relationships with over the years. One time, Mr. Hathaway recalled looking up and seeing the poet Maya Angelou sitting in the pews of Union Baptist.

Dr. Watkins was the personal cardiac specialist to Ms. Angelou, whom he hosted when she came to town for checkups or speaking engagements. Dr. Watkins served as her escort around town.

He first met Ms. Angelou in Alabama during the mid-1970s, when both were visiting Coretta Scott King. He and Ms. Angelou realized they had many friends in common, including civil rights leaders like Andrew Young and the singer Harry Belafonte.

News about Dr. Watkins' death spread quickly Saturday.

"Dr. Watkins has inspired countless people to pursue medicine; he's shown us that people of all races could succeed in scientific and medical fields," Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said after hearing about his death. "Since the 1960s, he has been a pioneer for so many of us, and as a fellow Alabamian, I am especially proud of his career and contributions."

Mr. Mfume called Dr. Watkins a quiet political figure who would support those officials who were committed to the idea of justice.

"He stood up, and no one could sit him down," Mr. Mfume said.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young considered Dr. Watkins a mentor. Mr. Young said Dr. Watkins stood up for him when he hit a glass ceiling after 30 years working at Johns Hopkins because he didn't have a degree. Dr. Watkins often said Mr. Young had a Ph.D. in life and didn't need a man-given degree.

Dr. Watkins called Mr. Young last week to offer condolences on the death of Mr. Young's nephew, who was recently shot. He promised him a hug the next time they saw each other. Mr. Young said he was devastated by Dr. Watkins' death.

A tearful Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks announced Dr. Watkins' passing on the floor of the House of Delegates in Annapolis on Saturday, which concluded the day's session with a moment of silence in his honor.

The Senate also adjourned its legislative session in memory of Dr. Watkins. State Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat who made the motion, noted that Dr. Watkins' work with the defibrillator has saved thousands of lives over the years.

"He is going to be missed," Delegate Oaks said. "He was a giant of a man."

Details for services have not been announced.

In addition to his sister, he is survived by brothers Donald V. Watkins Sr. and James Watkins, sister Doristine L. Minott, and several nieces and nephews.

Baltimore Sun reporters Joe Burris, Erin Cox and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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