Wednesday 13 December 2017

'I thought call to say I'd won Nobel prize was a joke', says Irish scientist

Bert and Anne Cambell in Ramelton, Co Donegal
Bert and Anne Cambell in Ramelton, Co Donegal
– Bert’s younger brother Bill (pictured) was the joint winner of a Nobel Prize

An 85-year-old Irish scientist thought he was being pranked when he was told he had won the Nobel Prize for medicine.

Professor William C Campbell, from Ramelton, Co Donegal, and Professor Satoshi Omura were jointly awarded the prize for discovering a drug which fights infections caused by roundworm parasites.

The drug, Avermectin, has radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. It has also shown effectiveness against a growing range of other parasitic diseases.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar said the professor's work was "already bringing benefits to people across the planet".

"I'm immensely proud of my Donegal roots, I'm a Donegal boy and proud to be a Ramelton boy. It was a great place to grow up and was a great start to life," said Prof Campbell.

"I begin every lecture by showing a picture of The Mall in Ramelton and then a picture of cows on The Mall, my father's cows, and students always ask about it.

"Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with the lecture - but I like to tell people where I'm from because it is such a part of me."

He said he was shocked when a journalist broke the news of his win to him yesterday morning.

"I thought it was a joke when I was first told about the (Nobel) prize. I was a bit shocked to be honest. It's a great thrill and I'm delighted for everyone involved in this research."

Prof Campbell is a research fellow emeritus at Drew University in New Jersey in the United States. His proud big brother, Bert (88), said Bill "got all the family brains" and put his efforts down to hard work and home schooling.

Bert, who runs the Ardeen country house B&B in Ramelton with his wife Anne, joked: "My father had a run-in with the local school principal so he brought a teacher in to teach us at home.

"We are so proud of Bill and it was wonderful talking on the phone to him about it. His work has made life-changing differences to so many people around the world."

The boys and their late brother Lexi were all sent to boarding school at Campbell College Belfast by their father, who ran the general stores in Ramelton in the 1930s.

Sister-in-law Anne added: "He was here for a week three years ago when he was given an honorary doctorate by Trinity for his discoveries. It's a wonderful day for the whole family."

Prof Campbell graduated with first-class honours in zoology from Trinity in 1952.

He went on to receive a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1957, following which he worked with the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research until 1990.

Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity, said Prof Campbell "spearheaded the decision by Merck to distribute a cure free to millions of people". More than 25 million people are treated every year with Avermectin.


River blindness is an eye and skin disease caused by a parasite spread by black flies that ultimately leads to blindness as worms live just beneath the skin and make their way to the sufferer's eyes.

About 90pc of the disease occurs in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation, and it is also prevalent in parts of Central and South America.

Lymphatic filariasis can lead to swelling of the limbs and genitals, called elephantiasis, and it is primarily a threat in Africa and Asia.

Some 120 million people are infected with the disease, with about 40 million disfigured and incapacitated.

Also honoured by the Nobel committee was Youyou Tu, the first-ever Chinese medicine laureate.

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