Activism with heart

Levi Watkins, M.D., clearly recalled the time a woman sitting beside him on a plane collapsed into the aisle on a flight to Nashville about 11 years ago. 

“It was clear she was in trouble,” said the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine associate dean and professor of cardiac surgery at a Nov. 17 lecture at the UF College of Medicine. 

Despite Watkins’ attempts to revive her, the woman died. 

“I told them they needed a defibrillator on the plane,” he said. 

Watkins, who performed the world’s first implantation of the automatic defibrillator in a human, was the keynote speaker for the lecture and film series, associated with the exhibit “Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons.” The National Library of Medicine exhibit, which UF is hosting Oct. 18 through Dec. 2, and the lecture and film series are being sponsored by the UF Health Science Center Libraries. 

Levi Watkins, M.D. Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Watkins’ lecture, titled “Human Defibrillation: History and Evolution,” highlighted his work with defibrillators at Johns Hopkins and the device’s lifesaving impact. 

“Students, if you get a good idea, (obstacles) will come,” he said. “But don’t let it stop you.” 

The pioneer of cardiac surgery also overcame many obstacles personally. He was the first African American graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Later, he became the first African American chief resident, professor of cardiac surgery, and associate dean at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

Growing up in Alabama during the early civil rights movement, Watkins personally met Martin Luther King, Jr. and was inspired by the activism around him. It ingrained in him a commitment to racial equality, particularly in the area of medicine, and he worked to further increase minority representation in the field. 

“Activism with passion … that fit my whole life,” he said.