A Pioneer in Cardiac Care

Levi Watkins was born in Kansas in 1944, as one of six children in his family.  He moved to Montgomery, AL when his father became President of Alabama State College, an Historic Black University.  Levi was the valedictorian of his senior class and went to Tennessee State University to study biology.

When Levi graduated, he became the first African-American student accepted into Vanderbilt’s Medical School.  He then did a residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  There he became the first African-American chief resident.

Once his residency was concluded, Dr. Watkins took a research position at Harvard where he developed an approach to reduce the side effects of ACE inhibitors for patients with congestive heart failure.  His work led to the continued use of ACE inhibitors for patients with serious heart conditions.

After two years at Harvard, Dr. Watkins returned to Johns Hopkins.  He performed the first surgery to implant a defibrillator in a patient and developed the cardiac arrhythmia program.  He was also involved in research on the heart disease of African-Americans.

Growing up, Dr. Watkins attended the church where Martin Luther King was the Pastor.  He was baptized by Ralph Abernathy.  He took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was a Civil Rights activist throughout his career, especially increasing opportunities for African-Americans who wanted to pursue medical careers.

Dr. Watkins passed away at the age of 70 due to a heart attack and stroke.

Hidden heroes often leave a legacy in more than one area.  In Dr. Watkins’ case, you might say his legacy is the millions of patients who have lived longer lives due to the defibrillator he pioneered.  Or his legacy might be those congestive heart failure patients who can continue to use ACE inhibitors.  Or perhaps his greatest legacy is the number of promising African-American young people who can dream of medical careers because he helped open doors for them.

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“Service and joy; as you keep that in your heart, in your pulse, equity and opportunity will be easy.” – Dr. Levi Watkins

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