Carl Watson, MD, made history as the first Black graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. He earned his doctorate in 1964 as a member of the college’s first graduating class, and his impact in medicine continued through a decades-long career as an obstetrician and gynecologist.
We are deeply saddened to share that Dr. Watson died on Oct. 19, 2023, at the age of 85, after a long illness. The UK College of Medicine is grateful for his many contributions to education and health care – and for the legacy he leaves behind.
Dr. Watson attended segregated schools while growing up in Lexington Ky. Both of his parents were college-educated and encouraged his lifelong love of learning. Witnessing their academic achievements, Dr. Watson was inspired to succeed and steadfast in his commitment to earning a higher education. He was a tenacious learner throughout his life, gaining expertise in hobbies such as piano, classical music, architecture, and electronic circuitry, to name a few.
Dr. Watson received an undergraduate scholarship to attend Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C., colloquially referred to as the “Black Harvard” at the time. He originally planned to study engineering or architecture but found that he enjoyed the biological sciences classes better than the physical sciences.
“The highest form of biological science is the human body—that’s why I got interested in medicine,” said Dr. Watson in a 2020 interview.
To afford his pursuit of medical school, he transferred from Howard, after two years, to the University of Kentucky where he received his Bachelor of Science in 1959. The following year, Dr. Watson joined the inaugural class of the UK College of Medicine alongside 31 other aspiring physicians.
His medical education was underwritten by a Sloan Foundation Fellowship administered by Franklin McLean, MD, the founder of National Medical Fellowships. Dr. Watson served as class vice president during his medical school tenure and, during his sophomore year, received an additional scholarship from the Institute of Study of Man Foreign Fellowship to Jamaica.
While studying abroad, he served under the guidance of Edward Kass, MD, from Harvard University, who was researching asymptomatic bacteriuria in pregnant women at Jamaica’s Center for Disease Control. Dr. Kass also operated a clinic during the daytime and encouraged Dr. Watson to take patients’ vital signs, perform limited examinations, and venipuncture at the small clinic.
Dr. Watson also visited Hansen House, a leprosarium that treated patients of all ages, during his time in Jamaica. Though a cure has since been developed, leprosy (then referred to as Hansen’s disease) was quite rare in 1962, with less than one percent of US physicians having seen a case outside of textbooks.
Dr. Watson’s longtime mentors – Dr. McLean; Richard Allen, MD; and John Greene, MD – understood the importance of increasing the number of African-American doctors and often encouraged Dr. Watson to take the lead when working with patients.
Following his graduation, Dr. Watson remained at the University, completing his residency and internship in gynecology and obstetrics under the continued mentorship of Dr. Greene, UK College of Medicine’s first obstetrics and gynecology chair.
Dr. Watson joined the United States Air Force during college, but its Berry Plan, a Vietnam-era program that allowed physicians to defer drafting until they had completed their medical training, allowed him to complete his residency and gain rank simultaneously. He served as a military physician for two years during the Vietnam War and ultimately ascended to the rank of captain before leaving the military.
Dr. Watson and his family settled in Oakland, Calif., where he practiced as an OB-GYN for over 40 years. Known among his colleagues for taking difficult cases and achieving positive outcomes, Dr. Watson was regarded as a meticulous and exact surgeon. He was described as a master of explaining difficult concepts and ideas in easy-to-understand terms, which brought kindness and reassurance to thousands of patients over the years.
In retirement, Dr. Watson authored a collection of essays, “Short Stories for Tall Tales”, demonstrating his deep knowledge of varied topics, such as opera, fox hunting, medicine, fine dining, and more.
In recent years, the Dr. and Mrs. Carl and Nanine Watson Diversity Scholarship was established, signifying the history Dr. Watson made while paving the way for future doctors. The scholarship will aim to remove financial barriers for physicians in training and help make the medical field representative of the country’s rich diversity.
Dr. Watson is survived by his wife of 60 years, Nanine Neal Watson, his daughters, Camille Watson McGill and Remi Watson Adams, and four grandchildren, three of whom are currently attending college, with the youngest set to begin next year.
The legacy Dr. Watson leaves behind is tremendous. May we all be inspired by his passion for learning, commitment to compassionate care, and generous spirit.