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Honorary Masters of Medicine degree for an illiterate man

Cape Town’s uneducated surgeon, Mr. Hamilton Naki, who was awarded the honorary degree of Master of Medicine could neither read nor write. 

Cape Town Medical University has a leading position in the medical world. The world’s first heart transplant happened here as well. 

Master of Medicine honorary degree was awarded to this man who has never seen the face of school in his life. He could not read a word of English, leave alone write anything in English. 

But one morning in 2003, world-renowned surgeon Professor David Dent announced in the university auditorium: “Today, we are awarding an honorary degree in medicine to the man who produced the most surgeons in the world. Who is an extraordinary teacher and an amazing surgeon. But a man who has never studied medical sciences.”

Professor David Dent then announced it was none other than Hamilton. The entire auditorium stood up and applauded. It was the biggest reception in the history of this university.

Hamilton was born in Sanitani, a remote village in Cape Town. His parents were shepherds. He wore goat skin and walked the mountains barefoot all day as a child. His father fell ill when he was a teenager and he had to attend to the family. He left his village and went to Cape Town looking for a job. Construction was then underway at the University of Cape Town.  He was employed as a labourer at the university. He would send home all the money he earned. After a hard day’s work, he would sleep in the open ground.  He worked as a labourer for many years.

The construction soon ended. He then got the job of mowing the tennis courts at the University. He would arrive at the tennis court early in the morning and start his mowing. He did this for three years. 

Then came a strange turn in his life. 

It was a warm morning. Professor Robert Joyce was researching on the anatomy of the giraffe’s neck.  They had laid an unconscious giraffe on the operating table. But as soon as the operation started, the giraffe started to move its head. So they needed a strong man to keep the giraffe’s neck tight during the operation.

The professor came out of the theatre and Hamilton was there, mowing the lawn in front. The professor saw that he was a healthy young man of strong stature. He beckoned him and ordered him to grab the giraffe’s neck.

The operation lasted eight hours. During this time, the doctor continued to take tea and coffee breaks. However, Hamilton just stood there holding the giraffe’s neck. When the operation was over, he quietly went out and started mowing the lawn.

The next day the professor called him again.  He came and held the giraffe’s neck through the entire dissection. He worked double for many months. He never asked for additional payment for this duty.  Nor did he complain.

Professor Robert Joyce was impressed by his perseverance and sincerity and promoted Hamilton from mowing the tennis court to a lab assistant. He was now given the responsibility to help the surgeons in the operating theatres.  He excelled in this and continued working there for many years. 

In 1958, came another turning point in his life. That year, Dr.  Christian Bernard came to the university and started heart transplant operations.

Hamilton became his personal assistant during these operations. Soon he was promoted from an Assistant Surgeon to an Additional Surgeon.

As an Additional Surgeon, he was now given the task of stitching. He excelled in stitching. While working in the operation theatre, he began to understand the human body more than surgeons. So the senior doctors gave him the responsibility of teaching the junior doctors.

He then started teaching surgical techniques to junior doctors. He gradually became the most important figure in the operation theatre. He was unfamiliar with the terms of medical sciences. But he was the best of surgeons the world has seen.  Much of Prof. Christian Bernard’s achievements would not have been possible without the steadying hands of Hamilton. 

The third turning point in his life came in 1970 when research on liver transplant started in Cape Town University. He did extensive dissections on the liver and he identified a very important artery…which made liver transplantation easier and successful. 

His achievements astonished the great minds of medical science.

Today, when a person undergoes a successful liver transplant operation, much of the credit should go to Hamilton. 

Hamilton achieved this position with sincerity and perseverance. He was associated with the University of Cape Town for 50 years. In those 50 years, he never took a vacation. He would leave home at 3 o’clock in the morning and walk 14 miles to the university.  He would enter the theatre at exactly six o’clock. People used to adjust their watches with his time.

He received an honour that no one else outside the medical sciences has ever received.

He was the first illiterate teacher of Surgery. He was the first illiterate surgeon to train 30,000 surgeons in his lifetime.

He died in 2005 and was buried at the University. It has become a ritual for every graduating doctor to pose for a photograph at his tomb before walking out of the University to face the challenges of the outside world. 

And you know how he got this exalted position. 

Only one yes.

The day he was called to the operating theatre to grab the giraffe’s neck. And if he had refused that day, if he had said that day, I am a grounds maintenance worker and it is not my job to hold the giraffe’s neck

It was a yes and an extra eight hours of hard work that opened the door to success for him. 

Every job in the world has one criteria and the job is available only to those who meet the criteria. If you want to work, you can start any work anywhere in the world straightaway and no power in the world will be able to stop you.

Hamilton had found the secret; he gave importance to work rather than the job. This changed his life and his history.

– Anonymous