Hamilton Naki was born in the small village of Ngcangane in the Eastern Cape in 1930. His family was poor and after completing primary school he left for Cape Town to look for employment. At the age of fourteen he was hired by the University of Cape Town to maintain the tennis courts on the university grounds, at this stage Naki had his standard 6 (grade 8). In 1954 he was promoted to helping with the care of laboratory animals. He soon progressed from cleaning cages to more advanced laboratory work.
Naki was one of four highly talented technicians in the research laboratory at the medical school, during the time that Chris Barnard performed the first heart transplant on a human subject on the 03 December 1967.
Although Naki did learn how to perform transplants on animals in the laboratory, he was never involved in surgery on human subjects. Under Apartheid Hamilton was disadvantaged because he was barred from working in the Whites-only operating theatre, and his contributions in the laboratory were largely unpublicized at the time. In an interview with the BBC, Hamilton reflects: “Those days you had to accept what they said as there was no other way you could go because it was the law of the land.”
Four decades after the first heart transplant took place at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, stories began to surface about the role that Naki played in the procedure. Chris Barnard apparently hinted at Naki's involvement shortly before his death in 2001, and Naki himself claimed, at one stage, to have been involved more directly in the ground breaking procedure.
A source close to Mr. Naki once asked him where he was when he first heard about the transplant. He replied that he had heard of it on the radio. Later, he apparently changed his story.
He changed it, it seems, not simply because of the confusion of old age, but because of pressure from those around him. Mr Naki was already a hero, as a black man of scant education who had trained himself to carry out extremely difficult transplants on animals. (Christiaan Barnard admitted that, “given the opportunity”, Mr. Naki would have been “a better surgeon than me”.) For this reason, his role was gradually embellished in post-apartheid, Black-ruled South Africa.
Various credible publications began publishing Mr. Naki's 'untold' story of his involvement at Groote Schuur. Some of these publications included The Economist and the New York Times (both 11 June 2005), and two interviews with Mr. Naki, one in the careers section of the British Medical Journal (BMJ Career Focus 2004), and one with BBC online.
The majority of these publications have since expressed their regrets at being caught up in a misapprehension, as surgeons at Groote Schuur, the hospital where the transplant was performed, have assured researchers and the media that Mr. Naki was nowhere near the operating theatre when the transplant was performed. As a Black person during Apartheid, and as a person with no formal medical qualifications, he was not allowed to be. The surgeons who removed the donor's heart were Marius Barnard, Christiaan Barnard's brother, and Terry O'Donovan.