Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. was the first Black chief resident at the Johns Hopkins Medical School and the first surgeon to successfully implant an automatic heart defibrillator in a human in 1980. Forty-three years later, his family gathered Thursday to see the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center renamed for him.
The cardiac surgeon pioneered the procedure that now routinely saves the lives of those with irregular heartbeats. In addition, he was an advocate for diversifying the medical industry.
Watkins’ family joined hospital leaders, Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, and Kevin Sowers, president of Johns Hopkins Health System, for the dedication of the Levi Watkins Jr. M.D. Outpatient Center.
The medical pioneer died in 2015 at 70.
Thursday’s event began with a performance from the Unified Voices of Johns Hopkins, the choir Watkins founded. Watkins’ sister, Annie Marie Garraway, sat front row for the dedication, along with her son Levi Garraway, daughter Isla Garraway and a host of family members.
“Naturally, Levi himself became a role model for generations of Hopkins students, and he made it possible, in turn, for the students to be role models for others, as well,” said Susan Daimler, Hopkins trustee and chair of its Diverse Names and Narratives Project task force.
The center’s renaming is part of that project, which aims to highlight underrepresented groups that have had a significant impact on the institution.
“We know that our institution’s recognition of some of these achievements has been insufficient, especially with respect to those from historically marginalized or underrepresented groups,” the university’s provost office wrote in a release in 2021.
Watkins achieved another first at Hopkins — the first Black full professor. He eventually became an associate dean at the School of Medicine.
In addition, he started the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association, which provides postdoctoral fellows with career opportunities.
Levi Garraway, Watkins’ nephew, commended his uncle’s commitment to his patients.
“I believe Uncle Levi had this singular and, frankly for many of us in this family, almost shocking dedication to excellence in his active medical pursuits,” Garraway said.
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His dedication carried over to one of his mentees, Sherita Hill Golden, Johns Hopkins Medicine vice president and chief diversity officer.
“As Dr. Watkins did, let us remember that each and every day, in our words, in our actions and in the manner in which we treat others, that we are writing a eulogy and establishing our lives,” Hill Golden said.
This is the fourth building to be renamed under the Diverse Names and Narratives Project since it launched in 2021.
Charles Commons, a university residence hall, was renamed to Scott-Bates Commons in September 2022, to honor Frederick Scott and Ernest Bates.
Scott was Hopkins’ first Black undergraduate student, earning a chemical engineering degree in 1950. Bates was the first Black student in Hopkins’ School of Arts and Sciences and is currently the vice chair of the university’s board of trustees.
Johns Hopkins’ undergraduate teaching labs will be named after Florence Bascom, the nation’s first female geologist, who received her Ph.D. in geology at Hopkins in 1893.
“One of the things that inspired me the most was just about how existentially motivated Uncle Levi was by the prospect of preserving and bettering people’s lives,” Garraway said. “Of course, first and foremost, that’s the lives of his patients that needed heart surgery, and then equally the lives of so many people from underrepresented backgrounds who needed justice in some way coming through the halls of Hopkins medical school and residency.”