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June 29, 2005

edit, 6:30 PM: I just remembered that FX is airing this show, made by the same director of “Super Size Me”, tonight at 10 pm Eastern time. Tonight’s episode features a white American Christian who lives for one month with a desi Muslim family. The last time I was in Michigan (about a month ago), I remember having lunch with some of the guys I had just met at the Shifa Conference. During the course of the conversation, I happened to mention this show that was coming up. I kid you not… the person to the left of me was like, “Yeah, that guy stayed with us…”, and proceeded to tell me about the whole month’s adventures. What a small world. Unfortunately (as we know how I’m such a jerk for not remembering people’s names…), his name doesn’t come to mind immediately… Anyway, check it out if you can.

My New Personal Hero

Normally, I don’t simply like to copy/paste articles from other sites on the internet, but this article–specifically, an obituary–that was on was simply inspiring. The obituary narrated the life story of Hamilton Naki, an African man who took part in the world’s first successful heart transplant, but was never truly recognized and appreciated for his efforts. Kind of like Batman, I guess:

Lt. Gordon: I never did thank you.
Batman: And you’ll never have to.

But Hamilton Naki was no billionaire when he wasn’t working as a surgeon. In fact, he had no formal surgical training whatsoever, and in apartheid-imposed South Africa, no legitimate opportunity to be recognized and develop his talents further. But that didn’t stop him from achieving beyond what was expected of him, and then some–almost enough to make one feel ashamed at all the resources and skills that one has been given and not done enough with them… Perhaps what is more amazing is that he was never indignant that he was never appreciated for his work. I think that’s what really strikes me about this story: not only did he overcome the stacked deck against him, he didn’t even care about not being recognized.

A while back, I had posted about which kind of doctor I’d like to be… I feel ashamed that I didn’t have Hamilton Naki on that list.


Hamilton Naki

Jun 9th 2005
Cape Argus-Trace Images
Cape Argus-Trace Images

Hamilton Naki, an unrecognised surgical pioneer, died on May 29th, aged 78

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

The lab was busy, with constant transplant operations on pigs and dogs to train doctors, eventually, for work on humans. Mr Naki never learned the techniques formally; as he put it, “I stole with my eyes”. But he became an expert at liver transplants, far trickier than heart transplants, and was soon teaching others. Over 40 years he instructed several thousand trainee surgeons, several of whom moved on to become heads of departments. Barnard admitted—though not until 2001, just before he died—that Mr Naki was probably technically better than he was, and certainly defter at stitching up afterwards.

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 white heart.



From → Uncategorized

  1. Yet another ‘shoulda-been-Muslim’…God have Mercy.

  2. south africans are cool

  3. Anonymous permalink

    i love the last line…awesome article…

  4. That’s an incredible story. Thanks for posting it.

  5. Anonymous permalink


  6. hi name is shama’el haque and wife sadia shakir and baby hannan  cool people masha’Allah

  7. that’s right, shama’el, how could i forget… Subhanallah, im such a jerk.

  8. I just saw the show, I hope it leads him into Islam and his wife and kids. Anyways, they made a movie based on him, I think it was on HBO or it came on chanel & one of those made for tv movies. It was truely an amazing movie, and he truely is an mazing person,and his story should be heard everywhere.

  9. Anonymous permalink

    finally KR you spoke the truth “im such a jerk” Anywas the show was actually half good. Although in all of dearborn they couldnt find a better 1st spiritual advisor for the guy?
    Every question ended in the same answer, Islam is part of the Abrahamic branch etc..
    The second guy rocked

  10. Great Currently Watching

  11. inspiring story

  12. And we complain about not getting props or recognition.Subhan’Allah, we suck.

  13. i wish my name was Hamilton.

  14. Asalamu alaikum,
    Yea I saw that show last night on FX. It blew me out to think someone would actually do a show like this. From what I saw, it wasnt that bias, just some parts like when he was in the radio station and all they asked him was questions about terrorism. I mean i am sure others called and asked other types of questions. Also if you noticed, they didnt show his answer to that question at the radio station. What was funny was when he was trying to learn arabic. He started caughing when it came to pronouncing the kh one. LoL. But at the end, he said only good things about Islam. Alhamdulilah.

  15. yeah that summer was cool, he was attending all of the weddings/events/bachelor parties (moslem style!)/aqiqahs at the masjid and around town.

  16. something should be done for dr. naki’s family; this isn’t enough.  its like the senate’s latest apology for lynching.  that’s great that you finally admit you made a mistake, but what are you gonna do about it now?

  17. ’tis unfortunate that only when the soul departs / that our realization of its worth doth startadopt this one as ur doctor role model iA-IJB

  18. Anonymous permalink

    Thanks for the props. Salam

  19. i wish my last name was rizvi…….hint hint…

  20. Wow. I think the deepest part was, “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.”

  21. Finally, a post long enough to read and feel better for actually having read it– shouldn’t you be studying?

  22. Anonymous permalink on ‘episode guide’ once the flash is done loading.Then click on ‘muslims and america’.The guy’s name is shamael haque. pretty cool that you met him.

  23. Anonymous permalink


  24. “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 white heart.” His humility is awe-inspiring.Has the NFL given up?

  25. I spammed that article to the medschool listserv…punk…
    btw…great performance at Amina’s wedding yesterday.  I’ll have you perform at my wedding (but I have to find myself a squirrel first!)

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