Hamilton Naki: Laboratory surgeon who defied the odds

05 June 2005 - 02:00 By unknown

HAMILTON Naki, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 78, was a gardener who became a brilliant laboratory surgeon and helped Chris Barnard do the research that made his first heart transplant possible.

HAMILTON Naki, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 78, was a gardener who became a brilliant laboratory surgeon and helped Chris Barnard do the research that made his first heart transplant possible.

He also trained generations of surgeons, many of whom reached top academic positions at teaching hospitals around the world. At least a dozen of Naki's former students became professors of surgery and heads of department in places as far afield as Japan and the US.

Naki was born in the district of Centani in the Transkei on June 13 1926, and attended school up to Std 4. In the mid '40s, when he was about 18, he went to Cape Town and got a job rolling tennis courts and gardening at the University of Cape Town.

He had been there for several years when a professor of surgical research, Robert Goetz, beckoned him to his lab to help him hold a giraffe that he was dissecting (in order, as it happened, to discover why giraffes never faint when they bend down to drink).

Naki made such an impression on Goetz that he invited him to help in the lab on a regular basis.

He learnt how to anaesthetise animals, including giraffes, and put intravenous lines into them. He assisted with experimental surgery and looked after the animals post-operatively.

Naki was one of very few people who could anaesthetise a pig and transplant its liver, virtually single-handed.

A former surgical professor remembers how he even managed to rock her crying baby's pram while he was doing all this.

He became the lab's assistant surgeon and soon there was very little senior surgeons could do that Naki couldn't.

In the '50s he worked with Barnard in the laboratory, establishing techniques of open- heart surgery on dogs. It was this research that Barnard took into the clinical setting at Groote Schuur Hospital.

Naki was intimately involved in heart, liver, kidney and other transplant research throughout this critically important pioneering period that led to the first heart transplant.

He did a lot of this work himself while Barnard was practising.

When he was asked once how he had acquired all his surgical skills without any formal training, Naki replied: "I stole with my eyes."

In addition to his prodigious memory, he had excellent co-ordination and very good hands.

Not the least of Naki's contributions to medical history was his ability to get on with Barnard, whom many people found impossibly highly strung and temperamental.

Naki's temperament, one of infinite tolerance and patience, complemented the explosive heart surgeon's perfectly and the two were able to work shoulder to shoulder for years.

The only serious altercation anyone remembers Naki having was with an appallingly difficult Belgian registrar in the university's department of surgery.

He was the only person Naki ever decided he simply could not work with.

What made him a fine teacher was that, in addition to his patience, he had a strong personality and didn't tolerate any slovenliness or laziness from student surgeons. He set very high standards and left students in no doubt that he expected these to be met.

Naki lived alone in appalling conditions, in a tiny room in quarters for migrant workers, in the black township of Langa on the Cape Flats. His family stayed in the Transkei.

He was the first person in the lab every morning, never arriving later than 6am. It was his responsibility to sterilise the instruments with boiling water.

He left at around 4.30pm.

During the politically inspired riots that characterised the history of Cape Town, he'd come to work at 3am to avoid rioters and roadblocks.

He always arrived and left in an impeccably pressed suit with a Homburg on his head and shoes you could see your reflection in. He carried an umbrella, a newspaper and a Bible.

He was deeply religious, and read his Bible whenever he could. At lunchtime he would gather the "bergies" who spent their days in the cemetery behind the medical school, read the Bible to them and warn them about the evils of alcohol and dagga.

Naki was paid as a lab technician soon after he began working in the lab, and eventually as a senior lab technician, which was as high as the university could take him under apartheid laws.

In 2003, UCT recognised his extraordinary achievement by awarding him an honorary master's degree in medicine.

When he retired he arranged a mobile clinic - a converted bus - for his home district of Centani, which was 70km from a health service of any kind.

He also collected money for a rural school in the Eastern Cape from doctors he had trained. He would visit these doctors once a year and they knew when they saw him that there was no getting out of it.

A few weeks after Naki's visit, they would each get a letter of thanks from the school principal.

Naki is survived by his wife, Joyce, and four children. - Chris Barron