Hamilton Naki, Self-Taught Surgeon Who Assisted with First Heart Transplant But It Was Hidden

Written by Jae Jones

was a laborer who became a self-taught surgeon by assisting Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard. Dr. Barnard chose Naki to assist him in the world’s first human heart transplant in 1967, however, the contribution had to be kept secret for decades because he was a man in the apartheid-era South Africa. Naki, who left school at the young age of 14 had no formal medical training, and spent five decades working at the University of Cape Town. He was originally hired to work as the gardener. It is believed that Naki acquired his medical skills by observing in silent and covert practice at the university’s medical school.


Hamilton Naki was born most likely in 1926, so it has been told. It is believed the area of his birth was probably a poor, rural village located in Transkei, a largely black former British protectorate that is now South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. At the age of 14 when he had no more money to finish his education, he hitchhiked to Cape Town to find work. The university hired him to tend to the tennis courts and its grounds.

In the late 1950s, Naki took a job at the medical school cleaning lab animal cages. It was there were he was recognized for his intelligence and keen observation skills and steady hands. He was gradually allowed to become more involved in serious work. Naki learned how to anesthetize animals, and eventually to do surgery on them. He operated on pigs, dogs, rabbits and even a giraffe. Many of the surgeries on these animals that Naki performed were coronary bypasses and heart and liver transplants.


The transplant took place on Dec. 3, 1967, at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. The transplants made Dr. Barnard who was a young, handsome and white man, world famous. Dr. Barnard admitted in an interview quoted in the Daily Telegraph, that Naki was a better craftsman, especially when it came to stitching, Naki had very good hands. However, because of race, Naki’s role in the world’s first heart transplant remained unknown for years.

On Dec. 2, 1967, Denise Darvall, a young white South African woman, was hit by a car as she was crossing a Cape Town street. Taken to Groote Schuur Hospital, she was declared brain-dead. Her family gave permission for her heart to be transplanted into the chest of Louis Washkansky, a 55-year-old grocer whose own heart was failing.

As a black man, Mr. Naki could not operate on Ms. Darvall even after she was dead. But Dr. Barnard so prized his ability that he drafted him as a member of the team that would lift out her heart.

In a painstaking operation lasting many hours, Mr. Naki’s team removed Ms. Darvall’s heart, washing it repeatedly to cleanse it of her blood before introducing some of Mr. Washkansky’s. On Dec. 3, Dr. Barnard transplanted the heart into Mr. Washkansky, who lived for 18 days before dying of pneumonia. (NY Times)

While working at the university, Naki lived on the outskirts of Cape Town in a one-room shack with no electricity or running water. When he retired he only received a paid gardener’s lab technician. In 2002, Naki was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe, one of South Africa’s highest honors, for outstanding contribution to medical science.




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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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