Remembering the Legendary Dr. Levi Watkins Jr.: A Medical Pioneer Who Helped Change the Face of Medicine

It has been more than a week since Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. passed away due to complications from a stroke, but both the Black community and the medical community are still feeling the sorrow of a great loss and the wonders of the legacy he left behind.

While there are still serious disparities in the medical world, it isn’t nearly as unusual today to come across Black physicians as it used to be.

Watkins is one of the many iconic figures the Black community has to thank for that now.

Watkins was a man who seemed to effortlessly break down barriers and pack his 70 years of life with historical achievements.

In 1980, Watkins solidified his place in history as he became the first surgeon to implant an automatic heart defibrillator in a patient suffering from irregular heartbeats. It’s an accomplishment that continues to impact millions of people today.

“His spirit lives on in the 3 million patients around the world whose hearts beat in a normal rhythm because of the implantable defibrillator,” a statement by Watkins’ brother posted on the American Heart Associate website explains.

But Watkins ground-breaking achievements were never limited to the surgery room or the confines of an office.

Those who may not remember his legacy as a medical icon will certainly recall his work as an activist and civil rights pioneer.

“Watkins joined Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1970 after having graduated from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine where he was the first African-American admitted to the school,” according to NBC News. “At Hopkins, he became the first African-American to serve as the chief resident in cardiac surgery.”

Watkins could have easily touted such accomplishments as proof that Black people can achieve anything if they simply pull up their bootstraps and try harder. Like some accomplished Black stars today, he could have deemed himself the “new Black” and insisted that his ability to break down seemingly indestructible barriers was evidence that there were no real racial disparities barring Black people from the medical field.

Unlike today’s stars, however, Watkins knew that simply wasn’t true.

He used his role as a medical pioneer and civil rights leader to drastically increase the number of Black students attending Johns Hopkins University’s medical school.

“In 1979, he joined the admissions committee at Johns Hopkins University’s Medical School,” an article chronicling the history of Black students at the school noted. “Thanks in large part to his efforts, by 1983, minority representation at the school had increased by 400 percent.”

The president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and executive vice president of the Johns Hopkins Medicine, Ronald R. Peterson, gives Watkins credit for drastically influencing the overall culture at the hospital.

“It is inarguable that Levi’s impact on our hospital — on its culture, on its care — will endure, just as will our immense admiration for him and thanks for all that he did here,” Peterson said of Watkins in a press release.

It’s proof that even as Watkins has been laid to rest, the impact of his lifetime continues to thrive in the medical field.

A memorial service for Watkins has been scheduled for April 21 at Union Baptist Church in Baltimore.

10 Black Scientists and Physicians Who Changed History With Their Groundbreaking Achievements


Benjamin Banneker (Nov. 9, 1731 – Oct. 9, 1806)

Banneker was an astronomer, mathematician and author who constructed America’s first functional clock. In the early days of the U.S., Banneker was a prominent abolitionist working with Thomas Jefferson on improving the lives of Black people in this nation. He was also one of the few people to help survey the borders of Washington, D.C.


Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (Jan. 18, 1858 – Aug. 4, 1931)

Williams performed the first prototype open-heart surgery. He also was the second surgeon to perform a pericardium surgery to repair a wound. In 1891, he created one of the first non-segregated hospitals in the U.S. He called it Provident Hospital and it was located in Chicago.

11 African-American Medical Pioneers Who Will Make You Proud

As African-American advancements are continuously brought to the forefront, Black people in the medical field are hailed and admired for their accomplishments. They often achieved great success in the face of great adversity.

Dr. Ben Carson

Revolutionized Neurosurgery

Dr. Ben Carson is one of the most famous and respected doctors in the world. Since the 1980s, his surgeries to separate conjoined twins have made international headlines, and his pioneering techniques have revolutionized the field of neurosurgery. Carson also has become a role model for people of all ages, especially children. He went from the inner-city streets of Detroit to the halls of Yale University, to director of pediatric neurosurgery at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the United States. In 2004, Carson was awarded the Healthcare Humanitarian Award because he has “enhanced the quality of human lives … and has influenced the course of history through ongoing contributions to health care and medicine.”

blerds charles drew

Dr. Charles Drew

Plasma Researcher

Dr. Charles Drew, a physician, researcher and surgeon, forged a new understanding of blood plasma that allowed blood to be stored for transfusions. As World War II began, Drew received a telegram request: “Secure 5,000 ampules of dried plasma for transfusion.” That was more than the total world supply. Drew met that challenge and found himself at the head of the Red Cross blood bank — and up against a narrow-minded policy of segregating blood supplies based on a donor’s race.

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Dr. Regina Benjamin

First Black Woman to be Elected to the Medical Association of the State of Alabama

After Dr. Regina Benjamin received her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she returned to her Gulf Coast hometown, Bayou la Batre, and opened a small rural health clinic; for 13 years, she was the town’s only doctor. In 1995, at the age of 39, Benjamin became the first Black woman, and the first person under the age of 40, to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees, and in 2002, she became the first Black female president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. She was chosen “Person of the Week” by ABC World News Tonight, and “Woman of the Year” by both CBS This Morning and People magazine. Benjamin won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” award in 2008, and was appointed the 18th surgeon general by President Barack Obama in 2009.