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Barrier-Breaking Physician Levi Watkins Jr. Dies

Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., a pioneering physician and civil rights icon, died Saturday, April 11 due to complications from a stroke, Johns Hopkins Medicine announced in a press release.

One of his signature achievements was in 1980 when he became the first surgeon to implant an automatic heart defibrillator in a patient suffering from irregular heartbeats, a now common practice.

“His spirit lives on in the 3 million patients around the world whose hearts beat in a normal rhythm because of the implantable defibrillator,” according to a statement by his brother Donald Watkins on the American Heart Association website.

Over the years Watkins gained as much renown for his for his work to diversify the medical profession, as he did for his premier work battling heart disease.

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. At Hopkins he became the first African-American to serve as the chief resident in cardiac surgery.

“Throughout his life, Levi wore many hats. He was a pioneer. A renowned cardiac surgeon. A civil rights activist. A mentor,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s leading philanthropic organization devoted to health.

A history of African-Americans at Johns Hopkins University notes that, “In 1979, he joined the admissions committee at Johns Hopkins University's Medical School. Thanks in large part to his efforts, by 1983, minority representation at the school had increased by 400%.”

"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,” said Ronald R. Peterson, president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine in a statement.

Watkins grew up in Montgomery, Alabama where he attended Dexter Avenue Baptist Church which at the time was pastored by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who became a friend of his. He also participated in the civil rights movement as a college student at Tennessee State University, according to The Baltimore Sun.

A memorial service is now set for Tuesday, April 21 at Union Baptist Church in Baltimore.

Many have taken to social media to pay their respects to Dr. Watkins.