Giving a Heart-Transplant Pioneer His Due

Hamilton Naki, who died this week in Cape Town, South Africa, was a skilled medical worker who assisted in the world's first heart transplants. The lead doctor got credit for the pioneering work, but Naki was never identified because he was black.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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SIMON: Hamilton Naki died this weekend in Cape Town at the age of 78. He was not Dr. Naki, but he held an awful lot of heart in his hands. Mr. Naki was a medical worker with famously skilled hands who assisted Dr. Christiaan Barnard in the world's first heart transplants beginning in 1967. Dr. Barnard would install the heart, but only after Mr. Naki had carefully removed it from a donor and cleansed each cranny of blood. Dr. Barnard became rich and famous.

Hamilton Naki was black and hadn't been able to attend school past the age of 14 under apartheid. But after briefly working as a cattle herder, he hitched a ride into Cape Town and eventually found a job tending animals in the research lab at the Groote Schuur hospital. He saw dissections there and, as he said, `I learned with my eyes.' Dr. Barnard revered Mr. Naki's surgical skills and insisted he assist him in all heart transplants. The hospital had to oblige. But when the world's press first took pictures of the world's first heart transplant surgical team, the hospital identified Hamilton Naki as a gardener.

By the time he retired in 1991, Mr. Naki has assisted in thousands of heart and liver transplants and taught thousands of doctors. Shortly before he died in 2001, Christiaan Barnard finally revealed Hamilton Naki's true role on his team. Mr. Naki finally received an honorary medical degree. In a way, he was gardener whose hands cultivated life.

Coming up, a blues legend gets a museum all his own.

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