Blogs > Cliopatria > NYT & Other Media Gave Black South African Unwarranted Credit for Role in First Open Heart Surgery

Aug 28, 2005 7:20 pm

NYT & Other Media Gave Black South African Unwarranted Credit for Role in First Open Heart Surgery

An obituary on June 11 about Hamilton Naki, a black employee of the University of Cape Town, described him as having worked behind the scenes in 1967 to assist Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard in the first human heart transplant.

In recent weeks, British news reports have challenged this description. Further reporting in South Africa by The New York Times has discounted many details of the original account, which was based largely on earlier published reports. The Times should have attributed the account in the obituary more specifically, and should have made further efforts to verify it independently before publication.

The Times should also have corrected its account more quickly after the initial questions were raised.

Michael Wines, in the NYT, same day:

There are few tales in the annals of medicine to rival the recent obituaries of Hamilton Naki, hailed as the unschooled and penniless black laborer who in 1967 secretly helped Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard perform the world's first heart transplant operation.

Barred by apartheid from sharing the global acclaim for Dr. Barnard's feat, he won it only in death.

The New York Times said Mr. Naki's skills were so esteemed that medical authorities "quietly looked the other way" despite his black skin. The Spanish newspaper El País called him "el héroe clandestino." In an editorial, The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, "Most of us are so blessed by relative privilege that the story of Hamilton Naki seems like an outrageous fiction."

Alas, it is. Much of it, anyway.

This much is true: Mr. Naki, who was said to be 78 when he died on May 29 in a black township in Cape Town, was a skilled self-taught surgeon, versed in the argot and techniques of transplants despite leaving school at 14. He was held in great regard by Dr. Barnard and other white colleagues at the University of Cape Town, where he worked for Dr. Barnard at the time of the historic transplant.

But he did not extract the heart used in the transplant, given to Louis Washkansky, a 55-year-old diabetic, as many accounts had it. At the time, Mr. Naki was not even in Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, where the surgery took place, according to former colleagues. His considerable surgical skills were limited to experimental work on pigs and dogs, and even his greatest admirers say he would not have been allowed to work on humans.

Also, he was not a poor gardener at the university, as his obituaries reported, but a top-level laboratory assistant, paid a commensurate salary. He did not die penniless, either.

How he became accepted by The Times and much of the global media as a world-class transplant surgeon in gardener's clothing is not at all clear. Some say Mr. Naki amplified his story, confusing myth and reality in his dotage. Others say an account in the British newspaper The Guardian of his pioneering role, which apparently went unchallenged for at least two years, seemed too authentic to require further checking.

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