An Irishman's Diary
Ramelton is famous for many things: not for nothing was it known once as the Holy City – a Methodist church, one for the Church of Ireland, rather belatedly a Catholic Church, and no fewer than three Presbyterian Churches, not to mention a couple of ruins.
Its fine waterfront, tree-girt Mall, elegant houses, animated conversation, football team, country market, annual pantomime and thriving businesses all contributed to its renown. But, bypassed by the railway in the late 19th century, it slowly lost out to Letterkenny for which it is now partly a dormitory.
One of its most thriving 20th-century entrepreneurs was RJ Campbell whose shop, warehouse and farm supplies business was a fixture from the 1920s to the 1970s. Campbell’s shop attracted customers from Fanad and elsewhere, while for Ramelton itself he also provided electricity, at least until he switched off the motor and went to bed (personal note: as I was born at 3am, my arrival was illuminated by an oil lamp). Mr Campbell’s dynamic genes and brains passed to his children, notably his third son, William Cecil Campbell who, after school at Campbell College (where else?) and Trinity College, got an early Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Wisconsin to complete a doctorate on liver fluke, a subject dear – or distressing – to the hearts of the sheep-men of Ramelton, Fanad and the rest of the world.
From Wisconsin, Bill Campbell got a job in the research laboratories of Merck, Sharp and Dohme, the pharmaceutical firm, where he specialised in veterinary research and was involved in the discovery and development of thiabendazole, used against potato blight, and against roundworms in animals and humans. But his principal contribution was to play a major role in the development of Ivermectin, a new and giant step in the control of parasites: this came about deliberately, in that the lab was looking for new agents and found one in a sample of soil from a Japanese golf course.
The drug was marketed for veterinary use in the early 1980s and was extraordinarily profitable. In 1978 Bill Campbell had suggested to his boss that, in addition to its success in veterinary medicine, the drug might also be effective in treating river blindness in humans. This disease of Central America, sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen, is caused by a parasite spread by blackflies; each parasite develops into a long worm which reproduces over 15 years, the offspring spreading under the skin to cause severe itching and eventually to invade the eyes, causing blindness. Attempts to eradicate the flies had failed, and early drugs had had bad side-effects.
Campbell and his colleagues persuaded Merck to continue research and, when that proved successful, to provide the drug for free, since the potential patients certainly could not afford to pay for it. This was a difficult decision for the firm: would it discourage other firms from undertaking basic research in tropical medicine? Would patients value a drug that was provided free? Would the shareholders approve? Finally they went ahead: free distribution of another drug in Japan had in the past proved a sound business strategy; it fitted with the company’s ethical philosophy, the veterinary profits would carry the cost of the human drug; and distribution would be provided by a consortium of not-for-profit organisations. Gingerly, and using community groups to manage any cultural problems, the programme took off, giving the dose (one tablet a year) to growing numbers of patients or people at risk.
By 2010, after 20 years, the result has been that the number of treatments approved reached 100 million. In Ecuador the disease has been declared extinct. Elsewhere huge numbers of people have been freed from the disease, and have been able to move back to fertile areas near rivers. It is a major contribution to the health and welfare of many millions, largely unknown in Ireland until recently.
Dr Campbell has been the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions in the US and elsewhere and finally this summer was awarded a Doctorate in Science by his alma mater, Trinity College. And as for any doubts over free distribution, the bottom line is that Merck’s shareholders overwhelmingly approved. Meanwhile, Ramelton may bask in the reflected glory, while its old businesses close and its fine quayside warehouses crumble.