This Black South African Taught Professors Of Surgery Yet Had Very Little Education – ZoomSouthAfrica


The late Hamilton Naki is a very remarkable person who despite his lack of formal education or medical training was able to teach some techniques to medical students and physicians during the Apartheid era in South Africa. Naki was a laboratory scientist who has been described as a “great self-taught surgeon.”

Naki who was born in the Transkei region of South Africa only managed 6 years of primary education (Up to Standard 6, or Grade 8), before he was forced to look for employment at the age of 14.

He was hired by the University of Cape Town as a gardener to maintain the tennis courts of the university grounds. He was later promoted to work in the animal laboratory.

In the laboratory, he quickly progressed from cleaning cages to performing anaesthesia on animals which were scheduled for surgery. During this time, Dr Robert Goetz taught him how to dissect animals and operate on them.

Within a few years, Naki was working as a laboratory assistant to famed cardiac surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard who later performed the first human to human heart transplant.

Image Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

Naki initially performed anaesthesia on animals for Barnard who was refining techniques for open-heart surgery, organ transplants and preparing for the first human-to-human transplant.

The Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England described Naki’s role:

“Naki anaesthetised the dogs for the earlier work in heart surgery in the laboratory, which was on the establishment of open-heart bypass, using an external heart pump. This was a finger pump that circulated blood through heat exchangers that were warmed or cooled by huge steel tanks of water. Such pumps were difficult to maintain and often broke down unexpectedly.”

Naki later moved to the laboratory of a newly founded heart transplant unit where he worked at the experimental surgical operating table. In his new role, Naki performed surgery on baboons, rabbits, dogs and pigs to advance the work on liver transplants, in particular.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England’s Bulletin goes on to say,

“As the most senior member in the laboratory, Naki came to be considered its leader and began to impart the knowledge he had acquired to a long series of trainees. He demanded high standards and became a strict taskmaster

Naki demonstrated dissection and surgical procedures to more than 12 trainees who were later to become professors of surgery.”

It is important to note that when the Barnard performed the first human-to-human transplant in 1968, Naki was not present despite erroneous claims by many publications at the time of his death. Naki was never involved in surgery involving humans because under Apartheid, he was barred from working in the Whites-only operating theatre and he did not have the requisite medical qualifications.

Naki retired in 1991 after which he received “a gardener’s pension: 760 rand, or about $275, a month.”

However, in 2002, President Thabo Mbeki presented him with the Bronze Order of Mapungubwe for his contributions to medical science. The Order of Mapungubwe is South Africa’s highest honour and is granted by the President of South Africa, for achievements in the international area which have served South Africa’s interests.

In 2003, Naki received an honorary Master of Science in Medicine degree from the University of Cape Town which was presented by the University’s Chancellor, Graca Machel.

Naki died of ‘heart trouble’ at the age of 78 in 2005.

What They Said About Him

  • A liver transplant is much more difficult than a heart transplant… [doctors who work with Naki] tell me that Hamilton can do all the various aspects of liver transplantation, which I can’t do. So technically, he is a better surgeon than I am…Hamilton Naki had better technical skills than I did…He was a better craftsman than me, especially when it came to stitching, and had very good hands in the theatre. – Dr Christiaan Barnard
  • Despite his limited conventional education, he had an amazing ability to learn anatomical names and recognize anomalies. His skills ranged from assisting to operating and he frequently prepared the donor animal (sometimes single-handedly) while another team worked on the recipient. – Dr Rosemary Hickman, Transplantation Surgeon
  • A liver transplant on a pig in the U.S. would involve a team of two or three medically qualified surgeons… Hamilton can do this all on his own – Dr Del Khan, former head of Groote Schuur Hospital’s organ transplant unit.
  • He was 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. – Dr Ralph Kirsch, former head of the Liver Research Centre at the University of Cape Town
  • I want justification to be done to Hamilton Naki because I think he’s a remarkable man…I think that he’s a role model for any young black man not even in South Africa but in the world. That is that you don’t need to have the education or a certificate against a wall if you develop a skill – Film producer Dirk de Villiers