Johns Hopkins Hospital will call its outpatient center by a new name in honor of Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a cardiac surgeon who paved the way for other Black medical professionals.

The Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center will be named in a ceremony on Thursday to Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D. Outpatient Center, in a salute to the former cardiac surgeon who was the hospital’s first Black chief resident and the university’s first Black full professor of cardiac surgery. He also performed the world’s first successful implantation of an automatic heart defibrillator in 1980, a surgical procedure that corrects sudden interruptions in a natural heart beat.

The center opened in 1992 as part of a larger building complex named Robert M. Heyssel Building, for the hospital’s former president, and has since been colloquially called “J-hoc,” for Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center.

Susan Daimler, an alumnus and member of the university’s board of trustees, said the outpatient center’s new name is among Hopkins’ latest efforts to honor exceptional Black leaders.

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Watkins “hits all the marks of the things we want to see,” Daimler said. “This is a building that people think really highly of. This outpatient center is kind of a heartbeat of the hospital.”

According to a history published by the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., the outpatient center’s new namesake, was a Kentucky native who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama and became a community advocate after he, at 8 years old, met Martin Luther King Jr., who was a pastor at his family’s church. In 1955, when he was 11, he took part in the Montgomery bus boycott that followed the famous civil rights bus demonstration by Rosa Parks.

Watkins Jr. went on to become the first African American graduate from Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, and became the associate dean at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1991. He founded the Johns Hopkins Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, an annual celebration and award ceremony, in 1982; recruited a record number of Black student graduates in 1983; and helped fund the Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D. Endowed Scholarship Fund in 2009 for minority medical students.

Honoring Watkins is part of the university’s and hospital’s Diverse Names and Narratives Project, which has changed the names of four university initiatives, like faculty recruitment and scholar programs, and buildings since 2021.

In 2021, the university’s 105,000-square-foot teaching laboratory was named after Florence Bascom, the first woman to ever receive a doctorate degree from Johns Hopkins, and the second woman to earn a degree in geology in the country. Fannie Gaston-Johansson, the university’s first Black woman to become a tenured professor, was also honored in the renaming of one of the university’s diverse scholar programs last May.

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“We really wanted to bring more visibility and celebration to names and stories of incredible people who have made up Johns Hopkins’ diverse and fairly exceptional history,” Daimler said.

Angus Burgin, a faculty member in the university’s history department and member of the Diverse Names and Narratives project, said that since 2020 the hospital and university has formed at least three name committee boards whose work aims to address the racial discrimination of the organization’s past.

“I certainly think that the Black Lives Matter movement was a powerful influence on the institution,” Burgin said, “in terms of interacting with its own history of racism.”

Since 2020, the hospital and university have established three boards to reassess how buildings and programs are named; to review the names of current buildings and determine if any names should be removed; and to propose names that celebrate achievements by minorities.

Professor and historian Martha Jones also runs the Hard History at Hopkins project which examines the hospital’s history with slavery through discussions and events held throughout the year.

Sunny Nagpaul has been a freelance reporter since 2017, and covers arts and culture & homelessness and housing. She enjoys creating video newscasts, and has in the past worked in child care, as a line cook, and is interested in learning investigative tips for deeper stories. 

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