First world heart transplant must

 The first world heart transplant occurred in South Africa on 3rd December 1967. The third of December 2017 was the 50th anniversary of this dramatic scientific invention. Unfortunately, as in 1967, an African person who contributed to this extra-ordinary scientific achievement is being excluded. This distorts this magnificent story and makes it incomplete.

I am now here reminding what is left out of this important scientific achievement. When it happened an observer of world events remarked, “When South African heart surgeon, Christiaan Barnard stunned the world by performing the first human heart transplant in the world at Groot Schuur Hospital on 3rd December 1967, little was said about Hamilton Naki, an unassuming laboratory assistant who was often on Barnard ‘s side.”

Naki was born at Ngcingane village in the rural area of the Eastern Cape of South Africa.This was on the 26t June 1926. He died on 29 May 2005. He was educated only to Standard Six level – an equivalent of today’s Grade Seven.

In 1940 he went to live in Langa Township and worked as a “garden boy” at the University of Cape Town. In 1954 a University’s medical doctor after noticing his extreme intelligence hired him to work with him in the animal laboratory. He soon progressed cleaning animal cages, to anaesthesia on dogs. He assisted also in operating a giraffe. This was to determine why giraffes did not faint when bending to drink water.

Some years later Hamilton Naki worked with Dr. Christiaan Barnard as his laboratory assistant. Soon he was appointed Principal Surgical Assistant of the laboratory because of his remarkable skill and dexterity. When Barnard and his research team moved out of the surgical laboratory, Hamilton Naki assisted to develop the heterotopic heart transplant technique. Heterotopic has been explained as “bone formation at an abnormal site – usually in soft issues following a single blow to the area.”

Many surgeons whom Naki worked for are reported to have made the following statements about Naki: Christiaan Barnard, the now renowned heart surgeon has himself said, “A liver transplant is much difficult than a heart plant. [Doctors who work with Naki]…tell me that Hamilton can do all the various aspects of liver transplanting which I can’t do. So technically he is a better surgeon than I am.”

For his part Ralph Kirsh who was head of the Liver Research Centre at the University of Cape Town has declared, “He[Hamilton Naki] was one of the most remarkable men who really comes around in a long time. As a man without education, he mastered surgical techniques at the time, at the highest level and passed them on to young doctors.”

Rosemary Hickman a surgeon who worked with Naki for 30 years has been reported as saying, “Despite his limited conventional education, he had an amazing ability to learn anatomical names and recognise anomalies. His skill ranged from assisting and he frequently prepared the donor animal, sometimes single-handed, while another team worked on the patient.”

Del Khan was the head of the Groote Schuur Hospital’s organ transplant unit in Cape Town. He had been taught by Naki in the laboratory. Of Naki he is reported as saying, “A liver transplant of a pig in America would involve two or three medically qualified surgeons. Hamilton can do this on his own.”

In 1967, Hamilton Naki did not receive any honour for his surgical heart transplant contribution. Fifty years later there is still not a single mention of his name, while Christiaan Barnard receives all the glory for the heart transplant invention in the field of medical science.

Indeed, Nickey Rehbock in his article, HEART SURGERY’S UNSUNG HERO,

has written, “Despite Naki’s surgical achievements which helped make the first human heart transplant, he lived in obscurity for many years.”

Unfortunately, even fifty years later, when the world is commemorating the first heart transplant in the worldMr. Hamilton Naki is completely and deliberately ignored even in the medical world that is expected to be professional and ethical.

Indeed, in 1967 he was not recognised because he was an African – a black person. Dr. Christiaan Barnard became a celebrity as quickly as lightening. The African genius Mr. Hamilton Naki was by the way not allowed to appear in a photo with a “white” team. If he accidentally appeared in a photo with the medical team, the hospital authorities reported him as being in the cleaning service.

When I was a Member of the South African Parliament in Cape Town I was invited to a Presbyterian Church service which was honouring Mr. Hamilton Naki. He was a very charming person. I had a brief conversation with him. I asked him about the heart transplant that was done by Dr. Christiaan Barnard.

He said he had a dream about the heart transplant. He conveyed it to Dr.Barnard. Unfortunately, many people wanted to speak to this unique African scientist who contributed so significantly to medical science. I had to give them a chance. I wanted to talk to Mr. Naki about the nature of dream he passed on to Dr.Barnard. I thought I would talk to him some other time. Before I could interview him about his dream and what really happened he died.

Anyway, he had retired from his job in 1991. He received a monthly “gardener’s pension” of R760($275).This was all he was worth according to the insanity of the myth of “white supremacy.” He had been an African “garden boy.”

In 2002 President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa awarded Mr Hamilton Naki with The Bronze Order Of Mapungubwe. This is the highest South African Civil Honour.It is awarded to citizens for excellence and exceptional achievement. The University of Cape Town conferred Hamilton Naki with a Master’s honorary degree in medicine.

This is not enough.The medical world must officially recognise Naki’s contribution to the first world heart transplant. To ignore this indisputable historical fact for fifty years is to approve the insanity of the falsehood of “white supremacy.”

Of Mr. Hamilton Naki, New York Times of 11 June 2005 said, “Hamilton Naki was born a poor village boy. He worked as a garden boy. He has been described as “labourer who became highly skilled, self- taught surgeon and assisted in world’s first human heart transplant.”

(Dr. Motsoko Pheko is a historian, political scientist, theologian and lawyer. He is the author of several books. He is a former member of the South African Parliament as well as former representative of the victims of apartheid at the United Nations in New York and at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Many of his wrings can be viewed on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *