A Noble and Laudable Nobel Laureate: William C. Campbell

It's thrilling to see the Nobel, intended for a "most important discovery," given to a modest, selfless, humanitarian polymath, and perhaps not so much for a stroke of genius as for a lifetime of determination.
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One day in the early 1970s, Bill Campbell (one of this year's 3 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) stumbled on something truly remarkable. Bill had already been hard at work in Merck's Therapeutic Research institute for nearly a decade, applying his efforts to understanding the effects of various agents on a wide range of parasitic organisms, mostly worms.

Parasitic worms plague every livestock operation and horse farm around the world, especially in places where domesticated animals outnumber people. Long gone were the days in which the treatment options were limited to toxic doses of dry-cleaning fluid (carbon tetrachloride). The search was on for novel antiparasitic agents.

But testing each new compound required the painstaking recovery of fresh worms from a constant slaughter of infected animals. What Bill stumbled on that day was the discovery that larval worms would survive freezing at -321 F in liquid nitrogen! The implications for research were huge. Now there would be a constant supply of test subjects right from the freezer. Campbell later showed that the worms could survive freezing for almost a year.

Dr. William C. Campbell did not win his Nobel Prize for that singular groundbreaking stroke of genius. Yet it remains one of which he is particularly fond.

Like many of us parasitologists, Bill started out in this field as a graduate student deeply fascinated with the life-cycles of parasites. Delving into the life cycle of a parasite entails immersion into the behavior, ecology and anatomy of whatever that worm infects at every stage; deer and snails for Bill. Even now Campbell extols the beauty evident through the lives of parasites that thoroughly riddle Nature.

Nor was it for the way in which Bill Campbell blurs the lines between art and science that he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. A poet and an avid painter of abstract and joyfully colored parasite surrealism, his works hang in the offices and homes of we lucky few who have managed to get our hands on one.

While each of Bill's creations is deeply personal, so too have they all found a larger purpose. The American Society of Parasitologists has been Bill's intellectual home since his first meeting as a student in Wisconsin in the mid 1950s. He has long been the most generous of contributors to the future of our eager students. An annual auction raising money to bring students to the meetings sees bidding wars driving prices skyward for Campbell's donated art. He also was instrumental in creating an award to recognize student achievement in parasitology, and then saw to its being named for his mentor, Ashton Cuckler.

It was Campbell's decision to test the effect on worms of some fermented dirt he'd received from Satoshi Ōmura (co-recipent of this year's Nobel prize) that led to the discovery of the avermectins. While in the course of figuring out the drug's incredible power on parasites of livestock, it was Bill's foresight that led to its widespread use to combat human river blindness. And though he's often referred to the teams, and "team of teams" of scientists responsible for the breakthroughs, it was Bill Campbell who was there at each step shepherding in a new era to combat terrible human suffering -- pointed memos to Merck executives, painstaking studies that would show safety and effectiveness, all of which led to Merck giving the drug away for free.

Human parasites are on the run. The joint Carter Center / American Museum of Natural History exhibition "Countdown to Zero" bears witness to the triumph of a shared sense of humanity over neglected tropical diseases. President Carter's efforts have very nearly cast guinea worm to the pages of history. Just last week, Mexico was certified as finally free of the ravages of river-blindness -- a result of decades of international cooperation to deliver Campbell's discovery to millions.

It's thrilling to see the Nobel, intended for a "most important discovery," given to a modest, selfless, humanitarian polymath, and perhaps not so much for a stroke of genius as for a lifetime of determination. I waited a day before calling Bill to congratulate him on behalf of our Society. The one thing he wanted to talk about was how much fun he'd recently had, surrounded at Cedar Point by a new crop of wide-eyed parasitology students, all eager for discovery.

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