Physician, educator. Leevy was born on October 13, 1920, in Columbia to Isaac Leevy and Mary Kirkland. His parents pursued various business ventures, notably a funeral home and ambulance service. While working at the mortuary, the younger Leevy discerned that many African Americans’ deaths were due to inadequate health care, as well as poor medical facilities. In May 1937 he graduated with honors from Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia.
Leevy subsequently enrolled in premedical studies at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Although gaining various academic scholarships, he also performed clerical duties with the National Youth Administration (NYA), a federal New Deal agency. While an undergraduate, Leevy was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. By 1941 he had graduated summa cum laude from Fisk.
Barred by his race from receiving advanced medical training in South Carolina, Leevy was admitted to the University of Michigan Medical School. In 1942 he was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the NYA’s National Advisory Committee. This special panel was created to document education inadequacies and improper health care due to race prejudice within NYA facilities. Leevy also enrolled in the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program. Along with a monthly stipend, Leevy gained valuable clinical experience. During his years at the University of Michigan, he gained a reputation as a skilled diagnostician. Consequently he decided to specialize in medical research.
On gaining his M.D. in 1944, Leevy fulfilled his residency requirement at the Jersey City Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, where he observed that his white colleagues frequently interacted poorly with African American patients. Meanwhile he conducted notable research with changes in fluid metabolism during heart and liver failures, publishing his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He further investigated the relationship between diabetes and chronic alcoholism.
Leevy served two stints with the U.S. Navy, achieving the rank of lieutenant commander. From 1954 to 1956 he was stationed at the St. Albans Naval Hospital in Virginia, continuing his extensive research into liver diseases (hepatology). Leevy’s work expanded medical knowledge into the basic functions of the liver, as well as its primary disorders. He joined the medical faculty of the New Jersey Medical School (now the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) in 1957 and served as chair of the medical department from 1975 to 1991. In 1984 Leevy was named director of the Sammy Davis Jr. National Liver Center, and in 1990 he became director of the New Jersey Medical School Liver Center.
On February 4, 1956, Leevy married Ruth Barboza, a research chemist at the Harvard Medical School, where Leevy had held a research fellowship. They have two children.
Throughout his career Leevy has enjoyed an international reputation as a hepatologist. He has written six books on liver disease and numerous articles for scholarly medical journals, holds two patents, and has shared his extensive knowledge with thousands of medical students as a teacher. He has been the recipient of numerous academic and professional honors.
Kessler, James H., et al., eds. Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century. Phoenix: Oryx, 1996.