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:
COURTESY OF DREW UNIVERSITY