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  • Diversity in the Health Professions Matters: The Untold Story of Meharry Medical College
  • Wayne J. Riley, MDMPHMBAFACP (bio)

Levi Watkins, Jr., MD: A Great Man of Many Firsts*

Dr. Levi Watkins, in whose honor this lecture series is named, is a man of many firsts. In 1966, he became the first African American to be admitted to and later to graduate from Vanderbilt School of Medicine. In 1978, he became the first Black Chief Resident in Cardiac Surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 1979, Watkins joined the admissions committee of Johns Hopkins and by 1983 helped increase minority admissions to the school by 400%; in May 1983, the largest number of African American physicians ever graduated from that institution. He was the first African American to be appointed Associate Dean of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the first African American to become full Professor of Cardiac Surgery at Johns Hopkins. In 1991, Dr. Watkins was appointed Dean for Postdoctoral Programs and helped to establish the nation's first Postdoctoral Association.

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Levi Watkins, Jr., MD

Dr. Watkins's accomplishments do not end in the world of medical education. In 1980, he performed the world's first human implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator. Since that time, over 100,000 people have been saved by this procedure. He also helped to develop the cardiac arrhythmia service at Johns Hopkins where various new open-heart techniques are now being performed to treat patients at risk of sudden cardiac death .

It will come as no surprise, then, that in 1998, Dr. Watkins received the Vanderbilt University Medical of Honor for outstanding alumni and that, in 2002, Vanderbilt established a Professorship and Associate Deanship in his name, [End Page 331] honoring his work in fostering diversity in medical education. I am proud today to add to the tradition of honoring Dr. Watkins by recounting the history of another Nashville leader, Meharry Medical College.

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The Meharry Brothers

Meharry Medical College: Origins

Like Dr. Watkins, Meharry Medical College has long been a ground-breaker in health professions and biomedical sciences education. Meharry's motto, reflecting its roots in the United Methodist Church, is Worship of God through Service to Man, an intention that has guided the institution since its founding over 130 years ago.

Meharry's mission statement asserts that the institution "exists to improve the health and health care of minority and underserved communities by offering excellent education and training programs in the health sciences; placing special emphasis on providing opportunities to people of color and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of race or ethnicity; delivering high quality health services; and conducting research that fosters the elimination of health disparities." It has hewed fast to this mission for a very long time.

Meharry traces its origin back to an encounter between a family of free Black people and 16-year old Samuel Meharry in 1826. Meharry, a young Ohio farmer, ha d been driving a salt wagon loaded with goods. The wagon got stuck in the mud and, all alone, he was in danger of losing it and all he had in it. Nearby, he came upon a cabin where a former slave family lived whom he approached to ask for help. Although Meharry was a stranger, and although freed slaves ran the risk of becoming enslaved again in interactions with unknown Whites, they took the young man in, giving him food and shelter for the night and helping him to loosen the wagon and be on his way the next day. Knowing the courage this family had shown in order to help him, Meharry promised them, "When I can, I shall do something for your race."

In 1876, 12 years after the Civil War ended, Samuel and his four brothers, who had become prosperous, donated $30,000.00 and a few parcels of land to start the Medical Department of Central Tennessee College. The first year, there were 11 students and 2 faculty members, Dr. George W. Hubbard and Dr. William J. Snead. Classes were held in the basement of Clark Memorial [End Page 332] United Methodist Church...


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