Hamilton NakiBMJ 2005; 331 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7515.519-f (Published 01 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:519
Our obituary of Hamilton Naki (BMJ 2005;330:1511) claimed that Mr Naki, a former gardener, had directly assisted Christiaan Barnard in the world's first heart transplant, and that he was the unsung hero of this pioneering work, who was denied due recognition at the time because of South Africa's apartheid system. The obituary was based on secondary sources, including obituaries that had already appeared in other publications, such as the Economist and the New York Times (both 11 June 2005), and including two interviews with Mr Naki, one in the careers section of the BMJ (BMJ Career Focus 2004;328: 98), and one with BBC online (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3011105.stm).
Since publication the BMJ has learnt that some of our claims about Mr Naki were false (see Letters, p 517); although he did learn how to perform transplants on animals in the laboratory, he was never involved in surgery on human subjects, and did not remove the heart of Denise Darvall before Barnard transplanted it into Louis Washkansky. The Economist has also since expressed its regret at being caught up in this misapprehension (www.economist.com/people/displayStory.cfm?story_id=4174683).
Chris Logan, the author of a biography of Christiaan Barnard (Celebrity Surgeon: Christiaan Barnard—A Life), told the BMJ, “Naki was a truly remarkable figure who learnt how to perform liver transplants on animals in the laboratories…he was a highly valued member of Barnard's research team. Against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa, for an uneducated black man to achieve this was indeed astonishing in itself.
“But he did not at any stage assist in the first or subsequent human heart transplant operations, nor could he have done under the apartheid laws at the time.”