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Levi Watkins, Jr. a cardiac surgeon and civil rights leader, was born in Parsons, Kansas. During his childhood, he moved with his family to Montgomery, Alabama, where he attended the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor. Watkins played an active role in the Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s. He later volunteered as a part-time driver for King.

Watkins earned his B.S. from Tennessee State University in 1966. He applied to the University of Alabama School of Medicine but was rejected. Instead, he attended the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and became the first African American to obtain a medical degree from that institution in 1970.

He completed a surgical internship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and, after a research stint at Harvard Medical School, became The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s first black chief resident in cardiac surgery.


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From his earliest days at Johns Hopkins, Watkins played a pivotal part in changing the institution’s role in medical education. In 1975, at the request of newly appointed dean Richard Ross, Watkins and Earl Kidwell, a fellow African-American faculty member, launched a concerted nationwide effort to recruit talented minority students to the school of medicine. The success of the Johns Hopkins minority recruitment campaign quickly became a model followed by other medical schools.

In 1980, Watkins gained renown for implanting the first automatic heart defibrillator in a patient suffering from repeated, life-threating episodes of ventricular fibrillation, or irregular heartbeats. In 1983, he was appointed to the medical school’s admissions board, and the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates for minorities steadily climbed. Each year, Watkins hosted a reception for black students, house staff, and faculty, which grew from ten attendees in the 1970s to more than 100 by the mid-1990s. He also hosted a Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration each year from 1982 to 2015 that attracted renowned speakers such as Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King.

In 1991, Watkins was promoted to full professor of cardiac surgery and vice dean for postdoctoral programs and faculty development. He established the nation’s first postdoctoral association at Johns Hopkins. He retired in 2013 after serving as a surgeon and leader for forty-three years.

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Scope and Content

The Levi Watkins collection documents his entire career at Johns Hopkins. The collection includes correspondence, research materials related to his work as a cardiac surgeon, publications, photographs, moving images, awards, and artifacts, including examples of the implantable defibrillator. Electronic records include his email and documents from Levi Watkins Cardiac Surgery desktop computer from his Reed Hall office and from the Cardiac Surgery servers. Of particular interest are files related to the annual Johns Hopkins Medicine Martin Luther King Day event which Watkins established in 1982 and maintained until his death.

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The Photographs and Medical Illustrations series have been processed, and digitized images within those series are accessible through their catalog records. Additional series are currently being processed by Chesney Archives staff who will make a collection finding aid available upon completion. A preliminary inventory is available upon request.

Dr. Annie Marie Garraway, sister of Levi Watkins, provided funding for the digitization of his photograph collection.

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