Cape Town to honour pioneering medical researcher Hamilton Naki

A posthumous honour is in the pipeline for the late Hamilton Naki, the medical research specialist who helped the team that performed the world’s first successful human heart transplant.

Medical pioneer
The world’s first adult human heart transplant was performed by South African cardiac surgeon Dr Chris Barnard on 3 December 1967, in Cape Town, South Africa. Hamilton Naki was part of the research team that helped doctors achieve this pioneering medical success. (Image: Pixabay)

CD Anderson

The city of Cape Town’s Naming and Nomination Committee announced on 10 January 2017 that it was considering re-naming Salazar Plain in the CBD after Naki. The committee has unanimously recommended to Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille a move forward with a public participation process for the renaming of the public space.

Appropriately, Salazar Plain is located on the city’s foreshore, opposite the Christiaan Barnard Hospital, named for the chief surgeon in the ground-breaking 1967 heart transplant operation, and with whom Naki worked closely to make the procedure a success.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic medical moment.

Who was Hamilton Naki?

Naki, who was born impoverished in rural Transkei, left school at 14 and began working as a gardener at the University of Cape Town. Unable to gain formal medical training because of the apartheid government’s discriminatory education policies, Naki however showed a keen interest in learning research and technical skills.

He worked in the laboratories in the surgical faculty, initially as a cleaner and then later, showing a natural proficiency for research techniques and surgery procedures, became a laboratory assistant and animal anaesthetist.

Later, Naki joined Dr Christiaan Barnard’s research team, which was developing methods for performing intricate organ surgery, focusing particularly on heart transplants.

Role in Dr Barnard’s 1967 surgery team

Naki worked as an assistant surgeon on many of the training operations performed on animals, as well as compiled research for the team. However, contrary to popular belief and unsubstantiated media reports since Naki’s death in 2005, he was not part of the official transplant team on the day of the operation.

This did not take anything away from the importance of his work for Barnard’s team, however, although it would take another three decades for any official acknowledgment of Naki’s contribution.

Towards the end of the apartheid years, Barnard was able finally to speak publicly of Naki’s role, telling the Associated Press in 1993: “If Hamilton had had the opportunity to perform, he would have probably become a brilliant surgeon.”

Elaborating in a 2001 interview with the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Barnard said Naki became “one of the greatest researchers of all time in the field of heart transplants… (He) had better technical skills than I did… especially when it came to stitching, and had very good hands.”

Speaking to The Guardian newspaper in 2003, Naki himself felt no resentment for the downplaying of his role in the historic moment, joking that “I was… one of the backroom boys. They put the white people out front. If people published pictures of me, they would have gone to jail.”

University of Cape Town

Following the 1967 operation, Naki joined the University of Cape Town’s liver transplant research team. Over the next 25 years, he became a well-respected top-level laboratory assistant and teacher.

Ralph Kirsch, lead researcher of the team, called Naki “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.”

According to Dr Rosemary Hickman, a former lecturer and surgeon who worked closely with Naki at the university, he was instrumental in training second-year medical students in anatomy using research surgery on anaesthetised pigs. Naki also taught licensed doctors how to use the then revolutionary laparoscope, now commonly used for minimally invasive surgery.

He retired in 1991, finally obtaining his honorary Masters degree in medical science from the university in 2003.

Naki was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe, one of South Africa’s highest honours, for his outstanding contribution to medical science. He died in 2005, aged 78.

Naki’s legacy continues to inspire. The National Research Foundation’s Hamilton Naki Award has, since 2015, honoured outstanding individuals who have achieved world-class research performance despite considerable challenges.

The city of Cape Town’s proposal to give Naki a prominent space in the Mother City will no doubt inspire residents and all South Africans to successfully achieve their dreams against all odds.

For more information and an opportunity to offer input on Cape Town’s proposal for the public space dedication to Naki, please visit the official website.

Source: Wikipedia, South African History Online, New York Times

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