Hamilton Naki; Self-Taught Surgeon Aided Heart Transplant

Associated Press
Monday, June 13, 2005

Hamilton Naki, a former gardener who was so skilled in complicated surgery that he helped in the world's first human heart transplant -- but had to keep this secret in apartheid South Africa -- died May 29 at his home near Cape Town. He had heart- and asthma-related problems. He was in his seventies.

"He has skills I don't have," Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the heart operation, told the Associated Press in 1993. "If Hamilton had had the opportunity to perform, he would have probably become a brilliant surgeon."

A black man from a poor family, Mr. Naki left school without qualifications and found his first job at age 14 cutting grass and tending the tennis courts at the University of Cape Town.

In 1954, he was promoted to helping with the care of laboratory animals. He soon progressed from cleaning cages to more advanced laboratory work after a professor at the university asked him to help anesthetize animals used to train students in surgery.

Barnard asked Mr. Naki to be part of the backup team in what became the world's first successful heart transplant, in December 1967. This was in violation of the country's laws on racial segregation, which, among other things, dictated that blacks should not be given medical training nor work in whites-only operating theaters nor have contact with white patients.

Mr. Naki was especially known for teaching medical students to perform intricate liver transplants on pigs, a procedure that is said to be more complicated than human heart transplants.

Doctors who observed Mr. Naki's work used to describe how he managed to join tiny blood vessels with amazing delicacy and accuracy and quietly finish operations the medical students had started.

Prof. Ralph Kirsch, head of the Liver Research Center, described him as "one of those remarkable men who really come around once in a long time."

"As a man without any education, he mastered surgical techniques at the highest level and passed them on to young doctors. I don't think that happens very often anywhere in the world," he said in a Web site tribute.

Mr. Naki frequently recalled how the medical students came to him for guidance. "That's why they call me a surgical father," he had said.

By the time he retired in 1991, he had reached only the level of laboratory assistant. But he had to be content with the meager pension of a gardener, given that his more skilled work had never been made public.

Mr. Naki told an interviewer: "Those days, you had to accept what they said, as there was no other way you could go, because it was the law of the land."

It was only in 1994, after the end of apartheid, that Mr. Naki's contributions became known. In 2002, President Thabo Mbeki gave him the country's highest order for his years of public service. The next year, Graca Machel, the University of Cape Town's vice chancellor and wife of former president Nelson Mandela, bestowed an honorary degree in medicine on Mr. Naki in recognition of the years he spent training young doctors who later become leading surgeons throughout the world.

For most of his professional life, he lived in relative obscurity in a cramped one-room house without electricity and running water in the grim Cape Flats townships, which were created for nonwhites by the apartheid government.

The City Vision newspaper said that just before his death, Mr. Naki wrote a letter detailing his childhood life and how he grew up in the rural Eastern Cape, pointing out the difficulties he encountered and the struggle to become educated. He pointed to famine and the poverty that forced him to leave the Eastern Cape and come to work in Cape Town.

During his retirement, he achieved a longtime ambition of collecting money for a school in his deprived home province, hoping to provide an education he was never able to afford for his own four children.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company