Remembering Two Civil Rights And Medical Pioneers | WYPR

Remembering Two Civil Rights And Medical Pioneers

Apr 17, 2015

Elijah Saunders and Levi Watkins

We want to take some time this morning to reflect on the lives of two Maryland civil rights pioneers who passed away last week. Their ground-breaking careers and the medical breakthroughs comprise a legacy that counts them among the most important and influential figures of their generation.

Dr. Lisa Cooper joins me in the studio to talk about the contributions of these two men, both of whom were her mentors. She was the first recipient of the American Heart Association’s Watkins-Saunders Award -- named for Levi Watkins and Elijah Saunders. She is the Director of the Hopkins Center to Eliminate Cardiovascular Disparities, and she is also a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for her work in researching disparities in health care between African Americans and Whites.

Dr. Levi Watkins was raised in Alabama. As a teenager, he served as a driver for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the first African-American to graduate from the Vanderbilt University medical school. He came to Johns Hopkins in the 1970s, and became its first black chief resident of cardiac surgery. In 1980, he was the first to put an automatic defibrillator in a human heart. Levi Watkins also spear-headed the efforts at Hopkins to attract minority students to the field of medicine.

Dr. Elijah Saunders was also a medical and civil rights pioneer. He was a University of Maryland School of Medicine professor and cardiologist. He started a program called Hair, Heart and Health - an innovative idea in which barbers and beauticians were trained to take blood pressure readings in their shops.

Dr. Levi Watkins passed away last week at the age of 70.  There will be a memorial service for Dr. Watkins on Tuesday at Union Baptist Church.  Dr. Elijah Saunders was 80 years old.  His funeral was held last week.

A link to our 2008 story on Dr. Watkins and Dr. Sanders is here.