A picture of Senator Benjamin L. Cardin
Benjamin C.
Democrat MD

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    by Senator Benjamin L. Cardin

    Posted on 2013-12-13

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    CARDIN. Madam President, today I wish to salute Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., a renowned cardiac surgeon who will retire at year's end from Johns Hopkins Medicine. During his 4-decade-long career, Dr. Watkins has had a profound impact on American health care--through the countless patients he has treated, the students he has recruited and mentored, and the cultural diversity he has advanced.

    Levi Watkins, Jr. grew up in Montgomery, AL, the third of Dr. and Mrs. Levi Watkins, Sr.'s six children. At the Alabama State Laboratory High School, Watkins excelled in academics and athletics: he graduated valedictorian and was selected for the Montgomery All-Star basketball team. It was in Alabama that he witnessed the early days of the civil rights movement. As a member of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, Watkins developed a close friendship with his pastor, the Reverend Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, and later he attended Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he was introduced to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the King family.

    Watkins majored in biology as an undergraduate at Tennessee State University, where he was elected president of the student body and joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Alpha Kappa Mu honor society, Beta Kappa Chi honor society, and many other notable organizations. Watkins also led many student movements on campus and graduated with highest honors.

    Dr. Watkins' medical career has been one of monumental firsts. In 1966, he integrated the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine as the first African-American student ever admitted. He was later selected to become a member of Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society. Watkins arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1970 as a general surgery intern and became the first African-American chief resident in cardiac surgery in the institution's history. There, in 1980, he performed the world's first implantation of an automatic heart defibrillator in a human--a procedure that is now performed worldwide and has since saved tens of thousands of lives. In 1991, Dr. Watkins became the first African- American at Johns Hopkins promoted to full professor of cardiac surgery. He was named the first African-American associate dean in the School of Medicine and established the nation's first postdoctoral association, helping to revolutionize the culture of postdoctoral education in the United States. Today, there are more than 50 such associations across the nation.

    Dr. Watkins has been a fierce advocate for fairness and diversity. He joined the Hopkins School of Medicine's admissions committee in 1979, and began recruiting minority applicants and sponsoring an annual welcoming and networking reception for new students. In 1982, he founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration at Hopkins, an annual event that has brought an illustrious array of speakers to Baltimore, including Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Stevie Wonder, and Taylor Branch.

    In October 2002, Vanderbilt University established a Professorship and Associate Deanship in his name; in October 2005, Dr. Watkins' portrait was unveiled at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine honoring his life's work; and, in 2008, Vanderbilt bestowed upon Dr. Watkins its ``Most Distinguished Alumnus Award.'' Since 2006, when he stopped performing surgery, Dr. Watkins has remained a powerful presence and an important influence on Johns Hopkins and the city of Baltimore. In December 2008, he was honored by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators with the Nation Builders Award, along with President-Elect Barack Obama, and James H. Meredith. In January of 2012, he was appointed co-chair of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's transition team for health and human services.

    I ask my colleagues to join me in wishing Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. well as he embarks upon the next phase of his lifelong journey to improve the health and well-being of others. ____________________

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