Charles DeWitt Watts, 86, a former Howard University trustee and North Carolina's first board-certified black surgeon, died July 12 at his home in the Forest at Duke, a retirement community in North Carolina. He died of complications from diabetes and heart disease.
Considered a leader in health care access for the poor, Dr. Watts opened his own private practice in general surgery in Durham, N.C., in 1950 at a time when African Americans had limited access to medical services. He also cleared the way for other black doctors in the area and advocated for certification for black medical students.
Dr. Watts credited the pioneering blood plasma researcher Charles Drew with mentoring him and inspiring his surgical career. Born in Atlanta, Dr. Watts received a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College. He received his medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in 1943 and completed his surgical residency in 1949 at the former Freedman's Hospital, under the tutelage of Dr. Drew, who was the department head. From 1948 to 1950, Dr. Watts served as instructor of surgery at Howard.
"It was because of Dr. Drew's encouragement that he went back to Howard . . . and went through the surgery training program," said his daughter C. Eileen Watts Welch. "The day he came back from his boards, Dr. Drew had him sit in front of the other fellows and talk" about his experience, she said.
In a 1986 Washington Post interview, Dr. Watts noted that in 1950, two-thirds of the certified black surgeons in the country had been trained at Howard and influenced by Dr. Drew, who pioneered blood collection and plasma processing. "He wanted black doctors to go out and establish themselves around the country," Watts said of Drew. "He succeeded far beyond his dream. We can point them out across the country -- Norfolk, Newport News -- this goes to California and back again. It was a trailblazing effort that really succeeded."
Dr. Watts left Howard in 1950 and moved with his wife, Constance Merrick Watts, to her home town of Durham. He set up a private practice and became the director of student health at North Carolina Central University. He later was vice president and medical director for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co.
In 1965, Dr. Watts became chief of surgery at the city's 150-bed Lincoln Hospital, one of the few American hospitals then that granted surgical privileges to black doctors. He also helped prepare the hospital's interns and residents for board certification.
When Lincoln Hospital was slated to be closed in the 1970s, Dr. Watts led the effort to turn it into a community health center serving people regardless of their income.
During his career, Dr. Watts also was on the surgical staff at Durham Regional Hospital and an adjunct clinical professor of surgery at Duke University Medical School.
Dr. Watts was a member of Howard's Board of Trustees for 19 years, before retiring in 1993. He was then elected a trustee emeritus for his contributions to the board.
In 2002, the Duke School of Medicine created the Charles Watts Travel Award, which funds student and faculty travel to study culturally specific medical issues.
A daughter, Deborah Chase Watts Hill, died in 1992.
In addition to his wife and daughter, both of Durham, survivors include two other children, Winifred A. Watts Hemphill of Atlanta and Charles D. Watts Jr. of Durham; and nine grandchildren.