Ireland’s only living Nobel scientist honoured at Trinity College

Honours for worm expert William C Campbell at university where he studied in 1950s

Ireland's only living Nobel laureate scientist, William C Campbell, enjoyed a poignant homecoming at Trinity College on Friday - the university where he studied as an undergraduate in the 1950s.

The celebrated parasitologist was honoured by the Nobel Committee which last year awarded the prize for medicine to him and fellow scientist Satoshi Omura for their work in defeating the roundworm, which causes river blindness.

That disease - which still affects some 25 million people, mostly in developing countries - is now in decline.

At a ceremony at Trinity College, Provost Patrick Prendergast announced the establishment of the William C Campbell lectureship in parasite biology.


Joy expressed

In a brief but emotional oration, the Donegal man, who was surrounded by friends, family and colleagues of old, expressed his joy at being invited back to the institution he has such a strong connection to.

“One of the first letters I sent home when I crossed the seas said that there’s no other university I would rather have been to. I’d rather have gone to here than any other university,” he said, tearfully.

Campbell's critical discovery of worm-killing avermectin was made while working as a researcher with pharmaceutical giant Merck in New Jersey after earning a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, but he reserved special praise for his Trinity mentor, Desmond Smyth.

“I’ve had the great good fortune to come under the influence of Desmond Smyth, who was a special person, and who fostered my interest in parasitic worms, and I have been attached to parasitic worms ever since,” he said, mixing humour with poignancy.

“I feel so strongly about them, I write poems about them, I paint pictures of them.

Worms ‘are brilliant’

“I just think they are wonderful, they’re brilliant, they have incredible diversity - and in fact I have no problem reconciling the fact that I love worms but have spent half my life trying to kill them,” he quipped.

Mr Prendergast told the audience “Bill” Campbell’s story had a broader resonance, especially considering the decision to make the patented ivermectin drug, a derivative of avermectin, free to those who need it.

“It speaks of the importance of donating drugs where they’re needed. It speaks of the importance of respecting basic research,” he said.

Trinity College professor of zoology Celia Holland added: "Bill's achievement has been fundamentally important to that whole issue of these diseases which were forgotten.

“They were the diseases of forgotten people, they were diseases of the disadvantaged - and now they’re coming into the light.”

Adaptable, cunning, resourceful

She concluded by quoting renowned US scientist John Janovy jnr in saying parasitologists are like coyotes: adaptable, cunning and resourceful.

"In the most respectful sense, I salute the greatest coyote," she said in the direction of Prof Campbell, amid rapturous applause.