I keep my Nobel Prize in a drawer, I won’t sell it – William Campbell

20 Sep 2016

Prof William Campbell receiving his Nobel Prize for medicine in 2015, following studies on parasitic roundworms. Image: Pi Frisk/Claudio Bresciani

Weighing in at 175g, composed of 18-carat recycled gold, the Nobel Prize is quite something. That’s probably why Irishman Prof William Campbell was asked to sell his.

What’s the biggest difference between a scientist who has landed a Nobel Prize for their decades of work, and one who hasn’t? The former, it seems, can’t retire.

William Campbell Nobel Prize

“Well, life has changed dramatically,” said Prof William Campbell, Ireland’s first Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine, landing the accolade late last year. “I was retired before. Now I’m not.”

The 86-year-old’s work led to the development of a drug called Avermectin, which has seen the creation of derivatives that have “radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis”, according to the Nobel Foundation.

‘I keep my Nobel Prize in a locked drawer, not in a bank. The way I see it, if I have friends around I want to be able to show it off to them.’

Golden touch

Now, with a big chunk of solid gold to his name, finding a place to store it is Campbell’s latest concern. Too valuable to leave out on the mantelpiece, instead he keeps it locked up, away from prying eyes and sticky fingers.

“It’s safe, but I won’t tell you where it’s locked away!” the scientist, originally from Donegal, said to Siliconrepublic.com.

The Nobel Prize medal, front and back. Image: The Nobel Foundation

The Nobel Prize medal, front and back. Image: The Nobel Foundation/Lovisa Engblom

The medal needs to be insured, given the value of the gold, so some winners have gone on to sell their prize. Others, according to Campbell, keep it in a safe in a bank – but where’s the fun in that?

“You cannot keep it on your mantelpiece the way you might expect,” he said. “It’s too valuable. It’s big, pure gold. But not just that, it has its associations and meaning and connection as well.

“I keep it in a locked drawer. The way I see it, if I have friends around I want to be able to show it off.”

Buy and sell

Amazingly, Campbell has already been approached by people interested in auctioning off the medal, painting a picture of an odd industry that has sprung up in the shadows of the Nobel Foundation’s showpiece annual event.

He has no interest in getting rid of it, not after all his hard work.

Campbell shared his award with Satoshi Ōmura, with their discovery dating all the way back to 1975, making it 40 years waiting for the ultimate recognition.

Campbell isn’t sure why it took so long for a prize of such esteem to land on his lap, though he suggests bureaucracy could have gone against him all of this time.

“It may have been because we were part of a team and you can’t award a Nobel Prize for science to any more than three people. Perhaps they were just trying to work it out,” he said.

Storied past

Campbell graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1952, and a chance meeting between his professor and a colleague in University of Wisconsin–Madison helped set him on his path. Seeking a suggestion of a student who would best fit a place in Madison, Campbell’s name was put forward by his professor, with the Irishman soon crossing the Atlantic.

After five years at Madison, Campbell graduated and, once again, a chance meeting between his professor and a colleague saw the Irishman land a job at Merck, where he stayed until 1990.

It was here that Avermectin was developed, on the back of years of studying roundworms and their role in spreading the disease known as river blindness.

“My interest in biology was always about parasites, parasites of all kinds,” he said. “Especially parasitic worms. Their importance in causing disease is clear.”

For sheer numbers of people and domestic animals infected, studying roundworms was Campbell’s pick. “I worked on this for 17 years in total, before my first retirement,” he said.

William Campbell receiving his Nobel Prize for biology, following studies on parasitic roundworms. Image: The Nobel Foundation/Claudio Bresciani

Prof William Campbell after receiving his Nobel Prize for medicine, following his studies on parasitic roundworms. Image: Nobel Media AB/Claudio Bresciani

Sligo soirée

Now back in Ireland for a few days, Campbell is delivering a short lecture on his award-winning work at IT Sligo tomorrow (21 September), while launching the new BSc honours degree programmes in biomedical sciences delivered by IT Sligo and Ulster University.

Taking time to visit some family in Donegal, where his brother and sister still reside, Campbell is also on hand to officially open IT Sligo’s new Aurivo Auditorium.

Now living in Massachusetts in the US, Campbell has two daughters and a son (none of whom followed him into the biology field), with three of his five grandchildren attending his talk tomorrow.

Ireland’s 11th Nobel Prize winner, and the first in a scientific field since Ernest Walton’s work with atoms gained him recognition in 1951, Campbell isn’t sure why so few from this country receive the accolade.

It’s not the sort of thing that you kind of plan for, he said, calling it “foolish” to aim specifically for the top prize.

Luck of the Irish

“There’s a tremendous amount of luck involved. Not just in connection with the prize, but in your career too. Your colleagues, their work, or even the meetings between people that set you on your way,” he said.

Campbell and Ōmura’s Avermectin discovery is ongoing, with the drug “showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases”, according to the Nobel Prize organisers.

In recent years, Campbell has become a research fellow emeritus at Drew University in the US, with transatlantic trips to open new courses, or for interview requests and other responsibilities meaning the 86-year-old’s work-life balance is skewing back towards the days of his youth.

Still, as a Nobel Prize-winning celebrity, he’d probably not have it any other way.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic