we are a single life-form, and all the religion, conservatism, preservationism, culturalism, sectarianism, whateverism et cetera serves only to keep us ignorant of science and the fact of our laying waste to the earth in those ignorant
Hamilton Naki, an unrecognised surgical pioneer, died on May 29th, aged 78
June 11, 2005 Economist Magazine
ON DECEMBER 3rd, 1967, the body of a young woman was brought to Hamilton Naki for dissection. She had been knocked down by a car as she went to buy a cake on a street in Cape Town, in South Africa. Her head injuries were so severe that she had
been pronounced brain-dead at the hospital, but her heart, uninjured, had gone on furiously pumping.
Mr Naki was not meant to touch this body. The young woman, Denise Darvall, was white, and he was black. The rules of the hospital, and indeed the apartheid laws of the land, forbade him to enter a white operating theatre, cut white flesh, or have
dealings with white blood. For Mr Naki, however, the Groote Schuur hospital had made a secret exception. This black man, with his steady, dexterous hands and razor-sharp mind, was simply too good at the delicate, bloody work of organ transplantation. The
chief transplant surgeon, the young, handsome, famously temperamental Christiaan Barnard, had asked to have him on his team. So the hospital had agreed, saying, as Mr Naki remembered, “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.”
Nobody, indeed, knew. On that December day, in one part of the operating suite, Barnard in a blaze of publicity prepared Louis Washkansky, the world's first recipient of a transplanted human heart. Fifteen metres away, behind a glass panel, Mr Naki's
skilled black hands plucked the white heart from the white corpse and, for hours, hosed every trace of blood from it, replacing it with Washkansky's. The heart, set pumping again with electrodes, was passed to the other side of the screen, and Mr Barnard
became, overnight, the most celebrated doctor in the world.
In some of the post-operation photographs Mr Naki inadvertently appeared, smiling broadly in his white coat, at Barnard's side. He was a cleaner, the hospital explained, or a gardener. Hospital records listed him that way, though his pay, a few hundred
dollars a month, was actually that of a senior lab technician. It was the most they could give, officials later explained, to someone who had no diploma.
There had never been any question of diplomas. Mr Naki, born in the village of Ngcangane in the windswept Eastern Cape, had been pulled out of school at 14, when his family could no longer afford it. His life seemed likely to be cattle-herding, barefoot
and in sheepskins, like many of his contemporaries. Instead, he hitch-hiked to Cape Town to find work, and managed to land a job tending lawns and rolling tennis courts at the University of Cape Town Medical School.
A black—even one as clever as he was, and as immaculately dressed, in a clean shirt, tie and Homburg hat even to work in the gardens—could not expect to get much further. But a lucky break came when, in 1954, the head of the animal research lab at the
Medical School asked him for help. Robert Goetz needed a strong young man to hold down a giraffe while he dissected its neck to see why giraffes did not faint when they drank. Mr Naki coped admirably, and was taken on: at first to clean cages, then to
hold and anaesthetise the animals, then to operate on them.
Stealing with his eyes
Unsung, though not unappreciated, Mr Naki continued to work at the Medical School until 1991. When he retired, he drew a gardener's pension: 760 rand, or about $275, a month. He exploited his medical contacts to raise funds for a rural school and a
mobile clinic in the Eastern Cape, but never thought of money for himself. As a result, he could pay for only one of his five children to stay to the end of high school. Recognition, with the National Order of Mapungubwe and an honorary degree in
medicine from the University of Cape Town, came only a few years before his death, and long after South Africa's return to black rule.
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. Strikes, riots and road blocks often delayed it in those days. When it came, it carried him—in his carefully pressed suit, with his well-shined shoes—to his one-room shack in the township of Langa. 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
Jul 16, 2005 Economist Magazine
How an inspiring life became distorted by politics
ON JUNE 11th this year, The Economist published an obituary of Hamilton Naki, a black medical researcher at the University of Cape Town. In that obituary, we described Mr Naki assisting in the first human heart transplant by removing the heart
from the donor, Denise Darvall. Our account was drawn directly from Mr Naki's own words in interviews.
We have since been assured by surgeons at Groote Schuur, the hospital where the transplant was performed, that Mr Naki was nowhere near the operating theatre. As a black, and as a person with no formal medical qualifications, he was not allowed to be.
The surgeons who removed the donor's heart were Marius Barnard, Christiaan Barnard's brother, and Terry O'Donovan. A source close to Mr Naki once asked him where he was when he first heard about the transplant. He replied that he had heard of it on the
radio. Later, he apparently changed his story.
He changed it, it seems, not simply because of the confusion of old age, but because of pressure from those around him. Mr Naki was already a hero, as a man of scant education who had trained himself to carry out extremely difficult transplants on
animals. He was also a martyr to apartheid: a man debarred from the proper exercise of his skills, and even from fair pay, by an iniquitous regime. (Christiaan Barnard admitted that, “given the opportunity”, Mr Naki would have been “a better surgeon than
me”.) For both reasons, his role was gradually embellished in post-apartheid, black-ruled South Africa. By the end, he himself came to believe it.
The process was assisted by hints from Barnard that Mr Naki had helped him in ways that were not fully known, and by the fact that, under apartheid, any such help on white human subjects would have had to be secret anyway. In the end, a story took shape
that looked so plausible to the outside world that not only ourselves, but the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and many others accepted it. Yet the same story appeared so ridiculous to the University of Cape Town, staff say, that they did not trouble
to deny it.
To report this misapprehension is doubly sad, apart from our own regret at being caught up in it. It is sad that the shadow of apartheid is still so long in South Africa that blacks and whites can tell the same narrative in quite different ways, each
suspecting the motives of the other. And it is especially tragic that it should have involved Mr Naki, a man considered “wonderful” by both sides, black and white, and whose life should still be seen as an inspiration.
[-back to options at the top(*1)]