Thursday, October 14, 2021

The mystery of Hamilton Naki

 Michael – Thursday

Hamilton Naki was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary story. Many black people in the Apartheid era in South Africa have extraordinary stories, but most of them get little attention. In Naki’s case, however, the story took on a life of its own. I’ve read a number of articles about him and versions of his story appeared in a variety of different media, including the prestigious New York Times and The Economist after his death. There were many reports at that time, some followed by retractions, and people are still chewing over the story today. There are recent posts about him on Facebook.

According to South African History Online, “Hamilton Naki was born in the small village of Ngcangane in the Eastern Cape in 1930. His family was poor and after completing primary school he left for Cape Town to look for employment.” (Here is a first mystery. Many reports describe him as “illiterate”, although the state of “Bantu education” in those days meant that completing primary school might not imply literacy as we would understand it.) 

He obtained a job as a gardener at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where his duties apparently involved mowing the grass of the tennis court near the medical school. From there he became involved with the laboratory animals, and when his spark was recognised, he was trained as a laboratory technician.

UCT was a centre of transplant research at that time, and a variety of organ transplants were carried out on animals in order to trial drugs and hone technique. Naki skill became well known and he carried out a variety of these operations as his knowledge and understanding grew. As South African History Online puts it: “Naki was one of four highly talented technicians in the research laboratory at the medical school, during the time that Dr Chris Barnard performed the first heart transplant on a human subject on the 03 December 1967.”

This is where the controversy starts. “Four decades after the first heart transplant took place at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, stories began to surface about the role that Naki played in the procedure. Chris Barnard apparently hinted at Naki's involvement shortly before his death in 2001, and Naki himself claimed, at one stage, to have been involved more directly in the ground breaking procedure.” It is true that Dr Barnard once said that if Naki had “had the opportunity”, he would have made a better surgeon than he was himself. From there the story grew. When he died in 2005, the New York Times reported:

“Hamilton Naki, a laborer who became a self-taught surgeon of such skill that Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard chose him to assist in the world's first human heart transplant in 1967, but whose contribution was kept secret for three decades because he was a black man in apartheid-era South Africa, died on May 29 at his home in Langa, near Cape Town.”

The argument is that since he was black it was illegal for him to operate on white patients.

So was Hamilton Naki a brilliant surgeon who was part of the first human heart transplant team, or was he a brilliant technician who assisted with the basic research? UCT recognized his contribution by awarding him an honorary degree of Master of Science in Medicine. A local hospital group in South Africa established a Hamilton Naki Clinical Scholarship. Cape Town has renamed a square after him. Would all this have happened if he were not part of the heart transplant team itself? It seems to me that even asking that question belittles the incredible achievement of a man who started with a rudimentary primary school education and ended up not only contributing to transplant research but also demonstrating surgical procedures and dissections to medical students at the university.

To me, while it is conceivable that Dr Barnard would ignore the Apartheid laws with the University’s connivance, I find it impossible to imagine that they would have allowed a person without formal qualifications to operate on a human patient.

We can celebrate what Hamilton Naki achieved and regret the opportunities he was denied. That is enough reason to honour him.


JOIN US when Mandi Friedman grills us about Facets of Death. The young Kubu made a hit, and the new Kubu will continue his "younger" life.

                                                    7pm SA time, 6pm BST, 1pm EDT

SALE: And by the way, if you don't already have your own copy, Facets of Death is currently on sale in North America for only $1.99 in any format.

1 comment:

  1. I never heard that story before. Fascinating, Michael. However, I don't share your skepticism on whether the University would have overlooked Naki's lack of formal qualifications to assist Barnard in the operation. This was a procedure capable of bringing world wide acclaim to apartheid South Africa. Something lacking at the time. Cynic that I am, if Barnard said, "I need Hamilton or else I'm going elsewhere," do you doubt the government would NOT send him away...especially since it could always deny Naki's involvement.