When Nobel Prize winner William Campbell began working with sophomore Heidi Smith, he designed her first experiment. He supplied Smith, who he remembers as “very shy, modest and inexperienced,” with the calculations for the drug dosages to be used in the experiment.
“She headed to the lab to get to work,” he remembers. “After a considerable amount of time, she came back very quietly and said, ‘I think you’ve made a mistake with a decimal point.’”
Campbell was delighted. “She was right!” he remembers. “The fact that she came to me, which must have been very difficult, was a terrific sign. I knew she’d be a great scientist.”
Heidi L. Smith C’95 earned her PhD and MD and is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and scientist at the school’s MassBiologics, a nonprofit that develops and manufactures biologics for unmet medical needs. She attributes much of her success to the three years of mentorship by Campbell.
Campbell’s approach to teaching in RISE (Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti), through which industrial scientists mentor Drew undergrads, also contributed to his success as a mentor. Campbell encouraged cooperation and humility, which he carried with him from his tenure as a research scientist at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research.
“If I ever discover anything all by myself, I’ll say so,” Campbell told Drew Magazine in 1998, “but industrial research is almost always a big team effort. That’s what makes it so rewarding.”
It was teamwork that led to Campbell’s 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine. The Prize was divided—one half jointly to Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura, a Japanese biochemist, “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites,” according to the Nobel Prize award citation. The other half went to Youyou Tu, a pharmaceutical chemist from China, for her work on a malaria therapy.
Campbell had studied parasites for years, and he began working on the drug that led to the Nobel Prize in 1975. Thanks to his initial work, that medicine, ivermectin, was successfully treating heartworm in dogs. But Campbell also saw its potential for treating human parasitic illnesses, which pose a threat to about one-third of the world’s population. Today, in many regions of the world— sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central America, South America—ivermectin eliminated river blindness, a life-altering illness.
Still, Campbell explains his contribution to the work that won the Nobel Prize by saying, “I did biggish things.” He describes his idea to use ivermectin on humans as “some small things that turned out to have huge consequences.”
“I was not the discoverer of ivermectin,” he insists. “It was definitely done by a bunch of people.”
Campbell’s modesty meant that many of his students were unfamiliar with Campbell’s groundbreaking work. “I did not realize the profound impact of his work until he gave me a book titled The Leadership Moment as a graduation present,” says Manny Gabriel C’02. “It included several stories of truly great accomplishments, one of which was the account of how his research at Merck was used to cure river blindness for millions of people. Dr. Campbell never mentioned this while I was in his lab.”
Gabriel, a fellow in complex surgical oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, also remembers Campbell downplaying other honors. Gabriel was a senior when Campbell was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. “He was surprised and even a little embarrassed to receive such an honor,” Gabriel says. Heidi Smith says she gravitated to Campbell, unaware of his prior triumphs, after hearing the RISE fellow give a brief speech about his work.
“I didn’t realize how accomplished he was until I read the literature and saw his name frequently,” Smith says.
And Campbell was fun.
“He has a playful nature and literally is a poet,” Smith says. Campbell is indeed a published poet. He also paints in oil and acrylic. His muse: the parasitic worms he studies. “Working with someone with that attitude, even on days when your experiment isn’t working, is a tremendous help,” Smith says.
William Cecil Campbell was born in 1930 in Ramelton, a small village in County Donegal, near the northern coast of Ireland. Campbell graduated with first class honors in zoology from Trinity College, in Dublin, in 1952. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin. Today he lives with his wife, Mary, in North Andover and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They have three grown children and five grandchildren.
Recalling his own education, Campbell speaks fondly about those who mentored him. He says Desmond Smyth, an undergraduate professor at Trinity College, “changed my life.” Smyth, a biologist in the zoology department, opened young Campbell’s eyes. “He would talk to me when I was an undergraduate from the sticks not knowing anything,” Campbell says. The two stayed in touch long after Campbell graduated.
While Campbell was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Wisconsin, he met his next mentor, Arlie Todd. At Merck, Campbell says, “a great American chemist” named Aston Cuckler inspired him to conduct empirical, or trial-and-error, research, which led to the discovery of ivermectin.
After working at Merck for 33 years, Campbell retired. He joined the RISE program and taught courses on the biology of parasitic diseases. He continued to teach the medical history course at Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, as he had since 1990.
“I didn’t really think of it as changing people’s lives or anything as highfalutin as that,” he says. “It was just a way of being in an academic environment, which I had always loved, after being in industry.”
He made more of an impact on his students than he expected—and they on him. In 1996, when he and Smith co-authored an article in the Journal of Parasitology, Campbell says, “I was more excited than I’d been for my own publications.” He viewed students like Smith as one of his own children, he says.
“They’re young, and they’re having a new intellectual experience,” he explains. “Apart from the intellectual awakening aspect, you’re also working with students at a time when you see great changes in people.”
Campbell’s mentorship did not end when his students graduated, and staying in touch with a mentor can help scientists remember what inspired them in the first place, Smith says.
“The day-to-day of science can be a fair drag,” she says. “It’s easy to get frustrated early on, but if you have someone who has gone the path before and seen the failures and the highs, they can give you a bit of perspective.”
Smith was nervous when she presented her first academic paper. The session was early in the morning and poorly attended. But as she spoke about her work, Bill and Mary Campbell were in the front row.
Campbell reluctantly mentions a letter he received from a student’s mother one year. She wrote to thank him for helping her daughter figure out what she wanted to do with her life and for contributing to her maturity.
“You don’t realize it is making a difference,” Campbell says. He looks away, his eyes filled with tears.
Undergraduates in Drew’s RISE program are not the only beneficiaries of William Campbell’s mentorship. Campbell joined the faculty at the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies in 1990 and began to teach in the newly established Medical Humanities Program in 1996.
Sherrilyn M. Sethi G’10,’12 teaches at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and attributes her successful career to Campbell.
“In the traditional Southeast Asian philosophy of Sikhism, a guru is characterized as not only a teacher, but as the wise guide actively walking along with his or her student providing guidance, reassurance and knowledge,” Sethi says. “Professor Campbell personifies this in every way.”
She remembers finding her life’s passion in his classroom as Campbell “scribbled away on the chalkboards—watching as the tapestry of history unfolded all around me.”
When he got to Andreas Vesalius, a noted figure in medical history, “I remember my pen in my hand, but I don’t remember writing down a single word besides a name and date. What I do remember, though, is that my academic life was never the same again.”
“For a student like me, Professor Campbell’s advising style was like something out of a fairy tale,” she says. “Dr. Campbell never seemed to doubt my passion, resolve or work throughout the time we worked together. His praise was so uplifting and his critiques so astute.”
So resolute was Campbell’s faith in her, Sethi says, it was inevitable she would develop that same faith in herself.
“Today,” she says, “I see his influence in every aspect of my disciplined work ethic.”