When Hamilton Naki died May 29 at the age of 78, newspapers around the world celebrated the life of the black South African, a onetime laborer who they said became adept at anesthesiology and secretly assisted in the first heart transplant surgery.
Obituaries carried by the New York Times and Associated Press, as well as the British publications the Economist and the Independent, among others, detailed Naki’s role on the surgical team -- led by Dr. Christiaan Barnard -- that conducted the first human heart transplant in December 1967.
But since those obituaries appeared, doubts have surfaced about Naki’s place in medical history. Last month, the Economist wrote a piece conceding that its June 11 obituary was in error and -- citing unidentified surgeons close to the case -- wrote that Naki was nowhere near Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town the day the operation took place. The Independent ran a clarifying story Aug. 24.
On June 13, the Los Angeles Times published a brief obituary on Naki based on material provided by AP. The item said Barnard was so impressed by Naki’s skills that he asked him to be on the backup team in the historic surgery.
The obituary further said that Naki was part of the surgical team and that his role was kept secret until the demise of apartheid in 1994. Under apartheid, blacks were prohibited from having any role in surgery on white patients.
On Saturday, AP ran a retraction saying that much of its obituary on Naki was incorrect. The wire service said its story was based on earlier AP articles, including comments from Naki and Barnard on April 4, 1993, and June 20, 2003.
The AP correction said:
“Doctors from the University of Cape Town say this widely reported story of [Naki’s] involvement in the operation has gone uncorrected since 1993 and is not true. In published letters to leading British medical journals, professor David Dent, acting dean of the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town, said Naki was a skilled surgical assistant but was not present at the hospital when the world’s first heart transplant was performed in 1967.”
The New York Times published an editor’s note Saturday saying the paper had “discounted many details of the original [obituary], which was based largely on earlier published reports.”
The newspaper also filed a lengthy story the same day from its Johannesburg correspondent on Naki’s life and career under the headline “Accounts of South African’s Career Now Seen as Overstated.”