SPECIAL EDITION: Vanderbilt mourns Levi Watkins Jr.

Remembrance: John Tarpley, M.D., professor of Surgery

Levi Watkins has been a personal friend, colleague and catalyst for nearly 49 years. He has been an incredible “Friend of Vanderbilt” over the past nearly four decades on multiple fronts, never forgetting his medical school roots. I met Levi Watkins Jr. in the late summer of 1966 when we were among the 54 folks matriculating at Vanderbilt for medical school: two women, one chap from Sri Lanka, 50 white guys “who could not jump,” and Levi, the first VUSM African-American student. Levi was familiar with Nashville and served as president of the student body at Tennessee A&I, which had a name change to Tennessee State University in 1968. For his first year of med school Levi lived in an undergraduate dorm at the Vanderbilt Men’s Quad.

Levi’s father was an educator, the president of the historically black university Alabama State in Montgomery, a personal friend and colleague of and later pallbearer for Martin Luther King Jr. Levi Jr. was close to his family; he too was an advocate for racial justice and active in addressing disparities via the Civil Rights movement. Levi was an excellent student. His initial year was not so easy, in part because of taunts he on occasion received in the dorm. He dealt with any discrimination there and elsewhere; he earned the respect of all at the med school, students and faculty. He was an honors (AΩA) graduate and a class leader.

Levi elected to pursue Surgery via the Match of 1970. He, Phil Rosenbloom, father of current Vanderbilt faculty member Trent Rosenbloom, and I all matched at Hopkins for General Surgery. An African-American, a Jew, and a Mississippi white all journeyed off to Baltimore to start our residencies. Levi was a leader of our intern class in an era where one was not guaranteed of a position for five years as now pertains; the early ‘70s were in the era of “the Pyramid.” I was fortunate as a Chief Resident to have Levi as my Senior Assistant Resident and benefited by his support, input and continued friendship over our 11 years together between Vanderbilt and Hopkins.

"The Vanderbilt Trio" at Johns Hopkins, 1970: John Tarpley, Levi Watkins Jr., Phil Rosenbloom

"The Vanderbilt Trio" at Johns Hopkins, 1970: John Tarpley, Levi Watkins Jr., Phil Rosenbloom

Some of the rest of the story: Levi excelled as a cardiac surgeon; he was a key figure in the development of the AICD. Following his residency and fellowship Levi stayed on faculty at Hopkins and then added the duties of Associate Dean where he, along with colleagues, changed the culture. Levi has been a force at and a conscience for Hopkins for 45 years. Levi helped change the culture, just as he had done at Vanderbilt, to make it a more racially diverse, accepting and multicultural environment. Levi arrived at Hopkins and met Vivian Thomas, who had been at Vanderbilt and accompanied Alfred Blalock to Baltimore in the early 1940s.

As Levi departs, one mark of his influence on culture change is the recent announcement of the appointment of Dr. Robert S.A. Higgins, cardiac surgeon from Ohio State University, an African-American, as chair of Surgery at Hopkins, with a 75-year progression from Thomas to Watkins to Higgins. Levi Watkins Jr.’s legacy lives on at Vanderbilt and at Hopkins.