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.
Hamilton Naki was born in 1926, in a poor rural village in Transkei, South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. At 14, lacking the money to continue his education, he hitchhiked to Cape Town to find work. The university hired him to tend its grounds and tennis courts. He spent five decades working at the University of Cape Town. Originally hired as a gardener there in about 1940, he acquired his formidable surgical skills through years of silent observation and covert practice at the university’s medical school. Dr. Barnard began to acknowledge Mr. Naki’s work only after the end of apartheid in 1991. In an interview shortly before his death in 2001, he called Mr. Naki « one of the great researchers of all time in the field of heart transplants. »In an interview with The Guardian of London in 2003, Mr. Naki expressed little bitterness about a lifetime spent working in the shadows. « I was called one of the backroom boys, » he said. « They put the white people out front. If people published pictures of me, they would have gone to jail. »In 2002, Mr. Naki was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe, one of South Africa’s highest honors, for outstanding contribution to medical science.In 2003, the university awarded Mr. Naki an honorary master of science degree in medicine. Although South Africa’s apartheid laws forbade blacks from performing surgery on whites, Mr. Naki’s skills were so esteemed that the university quietly looked the other way. He worked alongside Dr. Barnard for decades as a lab technician, perfecting his craft and assisting in many operations on people. Operating on animals, Mr. Naki also taught surgical techniques to generations of medical students. Mr. Naki learned to anesthetize animals, and eventually to do surgery on them, operating on rabbits, pigs, dogs and even a giraffe. Many of the animal surgeries he performed, including coronary bypasses and heart and liver transplants, helped to perfect techniques that were later used on humans. Hamilton had better skills than Dr Barnard but because of his race, Mr. Naki’s role in the world’s first heart transplant on a young white South African woman remained unknown for years. During his years at the university, Mr. Naki lived on the outskirts of Cape Town in a one-room shack without electricity or running water. When he retired, he was paid a gardener’s pension, far less than a lab technician’s. He died in 2005.