Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. a retired heart surgeon and educator, has made history a few times over the course of his four-decade career in medicine. On this day in 1980, Dr. Watkins performed the first human application of the Automatic Implantable Defibrillator (AID) at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md.
Watkins, born June 13, 1944 in Parson, Kan., was raised primarily in Montgomery, Ala. His father, Levi Sr., was the sixth president of Alabama State University. Watkins attended Tennessee State University for his undergraduate studies. He later became the first African-American to enroll in Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine and the first African-American to graduate.
After his graduation in 1970, Watkins became the first Black intern at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and then moved on to Harvard University Medical School. Watkins returned to Hopkins in 1975, becoming the first Black chief resident in heart surgery at the university. While in the post, Watkins worked alongside a surgical team that would eventually revolutionize heart surgery.
Watkins’ patient, a 54-year-old woman from California, was beating treated for arrhythmia, better known as irregular heartbeat. In interviews, Watkins and his team were not certain if the procedure would hold, as it was a bulkier device compared to similar tools used in modern medicine. However the AID device proved to be a success and helped saved thousands who suffer with the heart condition.
Watkins retired from surgery in 2006. In an interview, he shared that performing heart surgery on his father, who was 82 at the time, was one of his greatest accomplishments.