Notable African-Americans in Johns Hopkins History

Levi Watkins

Levi Watkins, The Johns Hopkins Hospital's first chief resident in cardiac surgery.

Since 1976, every U.S. president has designated February as Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by African-Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African-Americans in U.S. history.

Throughout the history of Johns Hopkins Medicine, many African-Americans are known and remembered for their significant contributions to medicine, which often led the way for change.

Who else should be included on the list below? Share your thoughts, stories and memories in the comments.

  • Vivien Thomas, surgical assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock during the revolutionary cardiac surgery to repair tetralogy of Fallot, a heart condition often referred to as “blue baby syndrome.” After the first successful surgery, everyone involved received a great deal of recognition except for Thomas, who was African-American. He was later given an honorary degree by the school of medicine
  • Suburban Hospital’s medical director of trauma services, Dany Westerband, MD, was a recipient of the 2015 Johns Hopkins Medicine Clinical Award for Excellence in Service and Professionalism and has a distinguished history of excellent service to his patients and colleagues. In 2010, Dr. Westerband led a team of physicians to Haiti immediately after the devastating earthquake to contribute to medical relief efforts.
  • At The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Robert Higgins was named the first African-American department head within the hospital in 2015. Levi Watkins is remembered as a prominent cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s first implantation of an automatic heart defibrillator in a patient in 1980. He came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1970 as the first African-American surgical resident and became the first African-American chief resident in cardiac surgery in 1975. Additionally, Ben Carson was the second African-American in the United States to become a neurosurgeon.
  • Howard County General Hospital anesthesiologist John Payne has been associated with the hospital since its founding year in 1973 and was the first chair of the hospital’s medical staff. During the years that followed, he developed a thriving practice of anesthesiologists. In its earliest days, it was obvious that HCGH needed the participation of private physicians from Howard County. Dr. Payne worked diligently to meld the interests of the new hospital with private doctors to build the Medical Arts Building in 1977, providing office space for private specialty practices in a building adjacent to the hospital. Payne noted, “These private physicians were critical for the survival of the hospital and the betterment of medicine in Howard County.”
  • At the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Robert Gamble and Nigerian student James Nabwangu were among the first African-Americans admitted to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and both graduated in 1967. 1975 graduate Claudia Thomas became the first African-American female orthopedic surgeon in the country. She later returned as an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
  • At the Johns Hopkins University, Frederick Scott was the first African-American undergraduate admitted and Gail Williams was one of the first three African-American women admitted.

Read about the impact of other African Americans at Johns Hopkins at

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