Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pays Tribute to Levi Watkins, Jr., MD

    • April 14, 2015

The following is a statement from Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MPH, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

Today we pay tribute to an extraordinary leader and RWJF family member—Levi Watkins, Jr., MD. Our dear colleague and friend passed away over the weekend, leaving behind an astonishing legacy that will resonate for decades to come.

Throughout his life, Levi wore many hats. He was a pioneer. A renowned cardiac surgeon. A civil rights activist. A mentor.

Levi attended Tennessee State University and, inspired by what he had seen while working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (he attended the Alabama church led by Dr. King), Levi said he “felt it was time that Vanderbilt [School of Medicine in Nashville] was integrated”. He became the first African-American to be admitted to, and graduate from, Vanderbilt’s medical school. He then started a general surgery residency at Johns Hopkins University Hospital and ultimately became the university’s first black chief resident of cardiac surgery in 1975.

Levi spent the majority of his professional career at Johns Hopkins University, where he played a crucial part in dramatically increasing the enrollment of African-American medical students. He joined the Hopkins medical school admissions committee in 1979, and four years later the school’s minority representation was up by 400 percent. Levi’s success there demonstrated the importance of increasing the number of minority medical faculty as a step toward growing the number of minority medical physicians in this country. It also helped to inspire the launch of RWJF’s Minority Medical Faculty Development Program in 1983. In 2004 the program was renamed the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (AMFDP), after the first African-American to chair a department of the Harvard Medical School.  

With passion, intellect, and humility, Levi served on AMFDP’s national advisory committee from day one, tirelessly championing opportunities for young scholars while striving to improve the quality of medical schools across the United States. He led, above all, by example, holding himself and others to “uncompromisingly high standards and expectations of excellence,” as Jim Gavin, former AMFDP director, has observed. Levi’s faithful leadership at AMFDP over the past 30 years has ensured the program’s continual growth and its deep influence on boosting diversity in medical training.

Levi’s contribution to medicine only begins there. In 1980, he was the first surgeon to implant an automatic implantable defibrillator (AID) into a human heart. He went on to make many improvements to the defibrillator over the years and developed the cardiac arrhythmia service at Johns Hopkins. Since then, the AID has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It is now recognized as the most effective treatment to prevent sudden cardiac death.

In addition to his work as a surgeon, Levi became a professor of cardiac surgery in 1991, and ultimately associate dean of Hopkins' medical school until his retirement in 2013. Throughout his career, his unflagging commitment to academic scholarship inspired countless others to pursue careers in science and medicine.

Levi’s brother, Donald Watkins, has said, “Levi made sure that the door of opportunity that cracked open for him at Hopkins would swing wide-open for all of the minority medical students and residents who followed him.” Levi’s life is a stirring testament to just how much one person can achieve. We thank him for opening doors so others could join him along his journey. We are truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him, and we will miss him greatly.