Com­pas­sion­ate em­piri­cism

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Catch­ing the Worm By Wil­liam Camp­bell With Claire O’Con­nell

Royal Ir­ish Acad­emy, 200pp, ¤24.99

To­wards the close of his mem­oir, Dr Wil­liam Camp­bell, who in 2015 won the No­bel Prize for medicine for his part in the dis­cov­ery of a drug that can cure river blind­ness, re­flects on the hu­man im­pact of re­search in sci­ence.

Re­call­ing the de­ci­sion of US phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal gi­ant Merck, where he worked as a re­searcher for more than 30 years, to make the drug iver­mectin freely avail­able to those suf­fer­ing from the dis­ease, the now nona­ge­nar­ian writes: “It was the right thing to do . . . built on the heroic trop­i­cal field-work of those who es­tab­lished the hu­man safety and ef­fec­tive­ness of the drug . . . an un­der­tak­ing that led to a trans­for­ma­tion in in­di­vid­ual lives.”

The anec­dote is an in­ter­est­ing one, com­ing as it does at an im­por­tant mo­ment for sci­ence. De­spite the politi­ci­sa­tion of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, lev­els of trust in the sci­en­tists de­liv­er­ing in­for­ma­tion about the virus re­main high world­wide: far more Amer­i­cans con­tinue to trust White House pan­demic ad­viser Dr Anthony Fauci than they do Don­ald Trump. If and when the global ef­fort to pro­duce a vac­cine that treats Covid-19 is suc­cess­ful, sci­en­tists in­volved in the re­search will be feted as saviours.

But Camp­bell tells the story less as an in­vo­ca­tion of sci­en­tists as su­per­heroes than as a clear-eyed un­der­stand­ing of what mo­ti­vates re­search into the devel­op­ment of life-chang­ing drugs. Com­pas­sion, he be­lieves, is not a per­va­sive fac­tor. “Any re­searcher with a shred of de­cency is go­ing to re­joice when re­search find­ings turn out to be of ben­e­fit to hu­mans . . . But it would be a rare re­searcher who could justly claim that com­pas­sion had been the prime mo­ti­va­tion for do­ing the re­search.”

So what is the mo­ti­va­tion? In Camp­bell’s case, it started with an in­spi­ra­tional bi­ol­ogy teacher at Camp­bell Col­lege, a board­ing school near Belfast, and con­tin­ued with a last-minute de­ci­sion to study nat­u­ral sci­ences – rather than medicine – at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin in the 1940s. There he once again ex­celled in bi­ol­ogy and was en­cour­aged by a lec­turer, JD Smyth, who se­lected him to study par­a­sitol­ogy, and whom he thanks for rec­om­mend­ing him as a PhD stu­dent to the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son in 1953.

Those de­ci­sions, which Camp­bell sug­gests mostly came about by chance, led to the next for­tu­itous move: a job in in­dus­try re­search at Merck in New Jer­sey, where he ex­pected to re­main for a year be­fore re­turn­ing to academia, but where he found him­self so stim­u­lated and sup­ported he stayed for more than three decades of his work­ing life.

Camp­bell’s story, which is writ­ten with scientist-turned-writer Claire O’Con­nell, is pre­sented chrono­log­i­cally: he was born in Co Derry in 1930 but grew up in Ramelton, Co Done­gal, where his fa­ther owned a gro­cer’s shop and his mother looked af­ter the house and fam­ily with the help of maids and a home tu­tor. Of his child­hood, Camp­bell re­mem­bers “se­cu­rity, cu­rios­ity and bus­tle”, but also a “cul­ture of ret­i­cence” that meant hugs were “alien to the day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties” of fam­ily life and praise was rare.

O’Con­nell has helped shape the book into short, clearly writ­ten sec­tions, in­ter­spersed with vi­gnettes or in­sights wrought from a long, ex­pan­sive life. One early sec­tion, for ex­am­ple, is ti­tled “A Brush With Pneu­mo­nia”, as Camp­bell rec­ol­lects how he nearly died from the ill­ness aged nine. An­other sec­tion, from his time at Trin­ity, dis­cusses the “ins and outs of din­ing out at Inns”, a hu­mor­ous riff on the so­cial con­sid­er­a­tions of eat­ing lunch in the com­mon room with other stu­dents.

The chap­ters from Camp­bell’s time at Merck are par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing, as he dis­cusses his re­search ac­tiv­i­ties into par­a­site-fuelled dis­eases in an­i­mals and hu­mans. Iver­mectin is the big one, ob­vi­ously, but he also helped work on drugs that counter round­worm in sheep and cat­tle; he worked on a cure for schis­to­so­mi­a­sis, a dis­ease that can cause dam­age to the hu­man liver, gut, uri­nary and re­pro­duc­tive tracts, and he also in­ves­ti­gated iver­mectin’s ca­pac­ity to pre­vent heart­worm in dogs.

Later in his work­ing life Camp­bell re-en­gaged with an early in­ter­est in art, paint­ing many pic­tures of par­a­sites for fun and re­lax­ation, and to raise funds for char­i­ties. He writes ef­fu­sively about the im­por­tance of sci­en­tists hang­ing on to the in­nate cre­ativ­ity they ex­pressed as chil­dren.

He is will­ing, also, to en­gage with those of us who may hold a jaun­diced view of Big Pharma, sug­gest­ing that Merck’s de­ci­sion to do­nate drugs such as iver­mectin was not a cyn­i­cal one, done to boost em­ployee morale or to claim a tax write-off. “I be­lieve that Merck em­ploy­ees felt proud be­cause they be­lieved the com­pany had done the right thing; and fur­ther­more they be­lieved that the com­pany had done the right thing be­cause it was the right thing.”

Camp­bell has had a for­tu­nate life, which he ac­knowl­edges. He has met fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, in­clud­ing for­mer US pres­i­dent Barack Obama. He has made a speech in Stock­holm. He has done the world some ser­vice. At var­i­ous points in the book, he re­flects on those things he has learned along the way. “Keep notes!” he tells us. “Mind your lan­guage.” While it’s im­por­tant to “be pre­pared”, es­pe­cially when giv­ing a speech, it is also vi­tal to “avoid a life of ex­ces­sive prepa­ra­tion”.

He dis­penses this ad­vice in a down-toearth man­ner: de­spite his ob­vi­ous pride in what he has achieved, and his con­tin­u­ing pas­sion for sci­ence, he re­mains po­lite, mod­est, and has clearly learned not to take him­self too se­ri­ously. He be­lieves in re­main­ing alert as one grows older, to keep tak­ing risks and en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple. He be­lieves, in­trigu­ingly, in the im­por­tance of doubt for sci­en­tific ac­tiv­i­ties. He be­lieves in us­ing con­struc­tively the hand we are dealt in the world.

Camp­bell writes that he hopes to play the ten­nis match of life for a while longer and when it is over, he says, he hopes to be able to echo his fa­ther’s last words: “I have had a good in­nings.” In­deed he has.

Above: No­bel Lau­re­ate Dr Wil­liam Camp­bell. Left: Camp­bell’s paint­ing Hook­worm with Tape­worms (1998). MAIN PHO­TO­GRAPH:


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