ON DECEMBER 3rd, 1967, the body of a young woman was brought to Hamilton Naki for dissection. She had been knocked down by a car as she went to buy a cake on a street in Cape Town, in South Africa. Her head injuries were so severe that she had been pronounced brain-dead at the hospital, but her heart, uninjured, had gone on furiously pumping.
Mr Naki was not meant to touch this body. The young woman, Denise Darvall, was white, and he was black. The rules of the hospital, and indeed the apartheid laws of the land, forbade him to enter a white operating theatre, cut white flesh, or have dealings with white blood. For Mr Naki, however, the Groote Schuur hospital had made a secret exception. This black man, with his steady, dexterous hands and razor-sharp mind, was simply too good at the delicate, bloody work of organ transplantation. The chief transplant surgeon, the young, handsome, famously temperamental Christiaan Barnard, had asked to have him on his team. So the hospital had agreed, saying, as Mr Naki remembered, “Look, we are allowing you to do this, but you must know that you are black and that's the blood of the white. Nobody must know what you are doing.”
From the British Medical Journal:
He lived in a tiny room in quarters for migrant workers in Langa, a black township of Cape town flats. He had no electricity or running water.