Today is the 90th birthday of Donegal man Bill Campbell. Who's that, I hear you say? Bill Campbell is Ireland's only Nobel laureate in medicine, which he won in 2015. No disrespect to Daniel O'Donnell or Packie Bonner, but he should be Donegal's most famous son. Why? His discovery of the medicine Ivermectin has saved millions of people from going blind in Africa and South America. Daniel, if you're reading, please sing The Hills of Donegal for Bill's birthday!
Farmers everywhere would be familiar with Ivermectin. It's used to treat cattle and sheep who are afflicted with parasites such as roundworm or liver fluke. It kills these parasites and has saved the agricultural sector millions each year because it keeps these animals healthy. Ivermectin is also used to treat dogs infected with heartworm, which can be fatal. Dogs are so important to so many people that, indirectly, this benefits humans, too.
But Bill didn't win the Nobel Prize for the use of Ivermectin in animals. He won it because he realised that it might also work for humans who have a parasitic disease. The disease is called River Blindness, it occurs in Africa and South America, and is caused by a parasite called Onchocerca volvulus, which burrows into people's eyes and makes them go blind.
Bill and his colleagues showed that Ivermectin worked against this parasite too. And it might get even better. There is now evidence that Ivermectin might work against Covid-19. More on that later.
So how did a boy from Donegal end up winning a Nobel Prize? Bill was born in 1930 in Derry, but grew up in Ramelton, Co Donegal. His interest in parasitic worms began when he saw a leaflet about liverfluke on a school trip to an agricultural fair. He loved biology in school and credits his teacher, Robert Wells, with igniting his interest.
This led him to pursue science in Trinity College Dublin, where he did a degree in zoology. There he was inspired by Desmond Smith, who worked on tapeworms and for some reason, they caught Bill's imagination. He has said in his autobiography (published today by the Royal Irish Academy and co-written with Claire O'Connell): "I have a liking for worms, even though I have spent half my life trying to kill them."
He also said that Smith was "an astute mentor. He had confidence in me where I lacked it, and that changed my life." A great example of how a university teacher can make such a difference.
Smith recommended Bill for a PhD on roundworms at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and so in 1953, armed with a battered suitcase and hardly any money, Bill emigrated to the USA.
He sailed via Cobh and Bermuda to New York, and then on to Madison. After his PhD, he got a job at Merck, working in their department of parasitology. And so began his quest for drugs to kill parasitic worms. At first, he had little success - or as he put it, "a totally unblemished record of failure". But eventually he made the breakthrough.
A collaborator in Japan, Satoshi Omura, sent him a soil sample collected from near a golf course outside Tokyo. Omura thought it would have interesting natural chemicals that might kill parasites. Bill managed to extract from the soil a chemical that could kill roundworms. This eventually led to Ivermectin, which was launched by Merck in 1981 for farm animals, and within three years became the world's top-selling animal pharmaceutical.
Bill wanted more. He tried it against the worm that causes River Blindness and it worked there, too. He convinced Merck to give the drug away for free, because the countries most affected by River Blindness wouldn't have been able to afford it.
The spot where Omura took the soil sample is marked with a special plaque for the golfers to read and muse on how a lump of clay might save the sight of millions.
Bill acknowledges that a lot of luck and serendipity was needed in the discovery of Ivermectin. He got lucky, though, because of his life-long diligence in science and because he knew which pond to fish in. He retired from Merck at 60 and took up an academic post in Drew University, finally retiring in 2010.
And then the fateful phone call came in 2015, to tell him he'd won the Nobel Prize, at 85. He was surprised, elated but also didn't feel quite right about it all. His upbringing in Donegal might have been part of that. To be praised was a rarity and now he felt awkward because he knew so many colleagues were involved in the journey with him. Still, without Bill, none of it would have happened.
He and his wife Mary enjoyed greatly all the parties and ceremonies associated with the Nobel Prize. Barack Obama hosted them in the White House.
Bill has been gracious with his time ever since, giving many presentations in schools and universities. But the story doesn't end there. News came from Australia a couple of months ago that Ivermectin had been tried against Covid-19. Remarkably, it seems to kill the virus that causes that disease too, and clinical trials are now running. Bill, true scientist that he is, has said "the probability of Ivermectin being used safely to kill the virus in people must be considered low". He has also said that "in science, doubt is our ally". But still, he wonders if the drug he discovered all those years ago might be useful in this fight. Let's wait and see.
"I've had a good innings," Bill's father told him before he died. He hasn't had a bad innings himself, with a few more balls yet to play.
Happy birthday, Bill.
'Catching the Worm', Bill Campbell's memoir, is published by the Royal Irish Academy.