Hamilton Naki is dead. I learned about it in this week’s Economist Obituary. I didn’t know who he was before reading this story. He lived in South Africa during apartheid, and was a brilliant surgeon. But he was black and nobody was allowed to know, so officially he was the gardener.

He was part of Dr. Christiaan Barnard team who performed the world’s first heart transplant. But he didn’t receive any credit at the time, although privately he was treated well: “Look, we are allowing you to do this, but you must know that you are black and that’s the blood of the white. Nobody must know what you are doing.”

His is the story of a modest, hard-working, selfless, deeply religious man, who in spite of everything stayed cheerful and happy:

“He took it well. Bitterness was not in his nature, and he had had years of training to accept his life as apartheid had made it. On that December day in 1967, for example, as Barnard played host to the world’s adoring press, Mr Naki, as usual, caught the bus home. (…) Because he was sending most of his pay to his wife and family, left behind in Transkei, he could not afford electricity or running water. But he would always buy a daily newspaper; and there, the next day, he could read in banner headlines of what he had done, secretly, with his black hands, with a white heart.”

One response to “Who is Hamilton Naki?”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Hamilton Naki – Please note the following correction to this story, which turned out not to be true. This is an extract from the British Medical Journal from last week.

    Hamilton Naki
    Our obituary of Hamilton Naki (BMJ 2005;330:1511) claimed that Mr Naki, a former gardener, had directly assisted Christiaan Barnard in the world’s first heart transplant, and that he was the unsung hero of this pioneering work, who was denied due recognition at the time because of South Africa’s apartheid system. The obituary was based on secondary sources, including obituaries that had already appeared in other publications, such as the Economist and the New York Times (both 11 June 2005), and including two interviews with Mr Naki, one in the careers section of the BMJ ( BMJ Career Focus 2004;328: 98[Free Full Text]), and one with BBC online (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3011105.stm).
    Since publication the BMJ has learnt that some of our claims about Mr Naki were false (see Letters, p 517); although he did learn how to perform transplants on animals in the laboratory, he was never involved in surgery on human subjects, and did not remove the heart of Denise Darvall before Barnard transplanted it into Louis Washkansky. The Economist has also since expressed its regret at being caught up in this misapprehension (www.economist.com/people/displayStory.cfm?story_id=4174683).
    Chris Logan, the author of a biography of Christiaan Barnard (Celebrity Surgeon: Christiaan Barnard—A Life), told the BMJ, “Naki was a truly remarkable figure who learnt how to perform liver transplants on animals in the laboratories…he was a highly valued member of Barnard’s research team. Against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa, for an uneducated black man to achieve this was indeed astonishing in itself.
    “But he did not at any stage assist in the first or subsequent human heart transplant operations, nor could he have done under the apartheid laws at the time.”