Civil Rights Activist and Pioneering Heart Surgeon Levi Watkins Jr. Dead at 70

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr.

Renowned cardiac surgeon and civil rights activist Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. died on Saturday in Baltimore at the age of 70, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine announced, according to the New York Times.

The day before his death, Watkins had been welcoming students to a Johns Hopkins University Hospital training program when he took ill, according to the school, where he was the first black intern in 1970. Cause of death was noted as complications of a heart attack and a stroke.


Baptized in Birmingham, Ala., by civil rights leader the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Watkins grew up involved in the civil rights movement, participating in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott as a teen, the Times notes. He later became a part-time driver for King, who was his family pastor, before starting on his path as a a pioneer when he became the first black student to enter and graduate from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“All my work since the integration of Vanderbilt University has been about inclusion, equity and opportunity,” Watkins said in an interview with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he was once denied admission, in 1966, the Times reports.

Seven months after Watkins finished his surgical training at Johns Hopkins—where he also became the first black chief resident in cardiac surgery—he became the first surgeon to successfully implant an automatic heart defibrillator in a human patient.

Read more at the New York Times.

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