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The Nobel One By Olive Heffernan

William C. Campbell receiving his Nobel Prize from H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 10 December 2015


arly last October, William Cecil Campbell – a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and a recipient of an Honorary Degree from Trinity in 2012 – received an unexpected phone call. The 85-year-old parasitologist learned he was to become the second Irish scientist ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize, after fellow Trinity alumnus Ernest Walton in 1951. Campbell was given a share of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his part in discovering a drug called ivermectin that treats and may one day eradicate one of the developing world’s most debilitating diseases – river blindness. Campbell, who grew up in Ramelton, Co. Donegal, never expected to win the prestigious accolade. For a start, he didn’t think it was possible because the discovery of ivermectin


Trinity graduate and Donegal native William Cecil Campbell B.A., M.A., Sc.D. (1952) is Ireland’s most recent Nobel Laureate for his part in discovering a drug that treats, and may one day eradicate, one of the developing world’s most debilitating diseases.

was a team effort. And the Nobel Prize is awarded to outstanding individuals. Sharing it with just one collaborator, Japanese scientist Satoshi Omura, has been a great honour for Campbell, but also a source of sadness as he laments that many of his co-workers will never be recognised, or named, for their contribution. Campbell’s response may sound surprising, but it’s perfectly in tune with his unassuming nature. Far from being someone who set out to make a name for himself, his achievement is the fruit of a life-long love of science, and especially, of worms. His enthusiasm for these everyday animals – so often seen as pallid and lifeless – is nothing short of infectious. It’s borne out in his poetry about worms – sometimes written from the worm’s perspective – and in his wonderfully

vivid paintings of parasitic worms, which are sold at auction to raise funds for student research. Speaking from his home in Massachusetts, Campbell eagerly explains his enduring fascination with these small, wiggly creatures. “Apart from the fact that they are colourless, worms are much like flowers in their diversity. They come in all shapes and sizes,” says Campbell, who likes to capture this astounding variety in his paintings. “The other brilliant aspect of worms is their resourcefulness. There is no sort of creature on earth that isn’t affected by parasites.” Though Campbell recalls his early education as being mostly devoid of science, a visit to an agricultural show during his school years piqued his interest in parasites. Campbell came across a pamphlet on the treatment of worms in cattle, and to this day, remembers the name of the parasite and the drug. “It didn’t change the course of my life, but I’ve often reflected on the fact that this particular memory stood out,” he says. It wasn’t until he came to Trinity, however, that Campbell’s interest was stoked further by a special relationship. An influential professor of parasitology, named J Desmond Smyth, took a shine to Campbell and encouraged him. “I was the lowliest of undergraduates and yet he was interested in me. He would stop in the corridor and talk to me,” recalls Campbell, who remembers watching Smyth remove a large tapeworm from a dead fish. For Campbell as a young student, this was a pivotal moment that crystallised his interest. “Looking back, he was a mentor, I suppose. That brought about a real change in direction for me.” It was Smyth who encouraged Campbell to


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