Levi Watkins, Jr. Biography (1945-)

African American
cardiac surgeon

Levi Watkins, Jr., the first black graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, has conducted research on congestive heart failure and also performed the first implantation of the automatic defibrillator in February 1980 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The Automatic Implantation Defibrillator (AID) is designed to restore the heart's normal rhythm during an attack ofventricular fibrillation or arrhythmia, an irregularity of the heartbeat caused by coronary scar tissue or hardening of the coronary artery. When arrhythmia occurs, the heart is unable to pump blood and, unless corrected by devices such as the AID, the sufferer can die.

Watkins was born on June 13, 1945, in Parsons, Kansas, to Levi Watkins, Sr.,an educator who became the president of Alabama State University, and LillianBernice Varnado. He graduated from Tennessee State University with honors in1966. Watkins received his medical degree from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville in 1970 and completed his residency at the JohnsHopkins University Hospital, where he was the first black chief resident ofcardiac surgery.

After his residency, Watkins was appointed assistant professor and then professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. Watkins also spent two years conducting research at Harvard Medical School's Department of Physiology, investigating therelationship between congestive heart failure and the renin angiotensin system. Within the renin angiotensin system, a kidney enzyme is associated with the production of a hormone that causes dilation of blood vessels and contraction of muscles. Watkins's research led to the use of angiotensin blockers totreat congestive heart failure.

In 1982, discussing the ground-breaking AID device in Ebony, Watkinsobserved that "Now we can give patients the ultimate protection from this sudden death." At that time, it was estimated that 500,000 people died from arrhythmia annually, making the disorder one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Invented by Michel Mirowski, the director of the coronary care unit at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, the AID is a small, battery-operatedgenerator that is implanted in the patient's abdomen. One electrode leading from the AID is inserted into the right chamber of the heart; a second electrode is affixed to the tip of the heart. When the AID senses an abnormal heartrhythm, it administers mild shocks to restore the normal rhythm. The successof the device means a positive prognosis for patients who do not respond to medication for the disorder (about twenty-five percent). Watkins's initial AIDsurgical procedure was soon followed by dozens of successful implantations,and representatives of medical centers throughout the country applied to be trained for the procedure.

In addition to his work with cardiac arrhythmia at Johns Hopkins, Watkins hasbeen a pioneer in the application of lasers to heart surgery, and has directed research on heart disease, particularly as it affects minorities, throughMaryland's Minority Health Commission and Panel for Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery. An aggressive recruiter of black students for Johns Hopkins Medical School, he was appointed in 1979 to the university's admissions committee. In 1983, Watkins joined the national board of the Robert Wood Johnson Minority Faculty Development Program. His other professional affiliations include the American Board of Surgery and the American Board of Thoracic Surgery.

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