Our people

Nobel Prize winner William Campbell celebrates 90th birthday

Dr. Campbell’s research led to significant decline in river blindness and lymphatic filariasis

June 26, 2020

Share this article

article hero thumbnail

Sunday, June 28, marks the 90th birthday of retired Merck scientist and Nobel Prize winner Dr. William “Bill” Campbell. We are honored to celebrate Dr. Campbell’s life; he is an important part of our company’s rich history of following the science to save and improve lives.

Dr. Campbell and Japanese microbiologist Dr. Satoshi Omura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for their research discovery of a novel therapy that has helped eliminate river blindness and lymphatic filariasis (LF) in certain countries in Africa and Latin America. River blindness, which is transmitted by black flies that live near streams and rivers, can cause severe itching, visual impairment, and, ultimately, blindness. LF, also known as elephantiasis, is transmitted by mosquitos and damages the lymphatic system, causing swelling of the limbs and genitals. Both river blindness and LF are on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of neglected tropical diseases targeted for elimination globally.

William Campbell

During the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, Professor Hans Forssberg, member of the Nobel Assembly, said that Drs. Campbell and Omura “have made discoveries that have led to drastic decline in these diseases and that will hopefully eradicate them within ten years.”

He continued, “Your discoveries represent a paradigm shift in medicine which has not only provided revolutionary therapies for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases but also promoted well-being and prosperity for individuals and society. The global impact of your discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are immeasurable.”

William Campbell

Dr. Campbell began research on a therapeutic treatment for river blindness in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, our own Dr. Mohammed Aziz, who died from cancer in 1987, collaborated with WHO to successfully design and implement field studies in West Africa on the disease. The work of these scientists has helped save millions of lives around the world and continues to touch more than 300 million lives each year. Through our public-private partnership established more than 30 years ago, our company helps vulnerable communities in developing countries combat river blindness and LF.

Perhaps Dr. Campbell’s extraordinary achievements are matched only by his humility.

“I have often been asked in recent weeks how it felt when I heard that I had won the prize,” Dr. Campbell said during his Nobel Lecture in 2015. “I can say without hesitation that my mind was instantly flooded with two emotions: one an emotion of joy and gratitude, and the other emotion, one of sadness. And the sadness [was] because … all the people who contributed to this drug and made it a success could not be named individually.”

Dr. Campbell was born in Ramelton, Ireland, and moved to the U.S. after graduating from the University of Dublin’s Trinity College in 1952. He received a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin before working at Merck from 1957 to 1990. Now retired, Dr. Campbell currently lives in North Andover, Massachusetts, with his wife Mary.

Dr. Campbell is Ireland’s only Nobel Prize winner for Medicine. This week, he released his memoir, “Catching the Worm.” He will be discussing his life and career at 3 p.m. ET online on Sunday with the Royal Irish Academy.

Happy birthday, Dr. Campbell, and thank you for strengthening our company’s resolve to combat infectious diseases and serve patients around the world.