Spring 2024


Photo by Kathleen D'Amico


For William Campbell MS’54, PhD’57, the path to a Nobel Prize started with a fluke — specifically, a sheep liver fluke. During a school trip to an agricultural show in rural Northern Ireland when he was 14, Campbell happened to read a pamphlet advertising a new drug for treating livestock infected with a parasitic flatworm commonly called a fluke. He remembers thinking how remarkable it was that one small pill could make such a difference for animal health.

A few years later, Campbell was a promising biology student at Trinity College in Dublin with a dual interest in veterinary and human medicine. His undergraduate adviser happened to be in touch with UW veterinary science professor Arlie Todd, who was looking for talented graduate students just as Campbell was in search of a postgraduation direction. At the time, the Department of Veterinary Science was part of CALS; it has since evolved into the Comparative Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program, now housed in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. The program had acquired an international reputation for research and graduate training, and it became Campbell’s destination.

Supported by a Fulbright travel grant, Campbell set sail for the U.S. on the Britannic in January 1953. In Madison, he moved into the Knapp House, which gathered graduate students from various disciplines to live in the former governor’s mansion near Lake Mendota. In the lab, he worked closely with both Todd and veterinary science and zoology professor Chester Herrick to study giant liver flukes in sheep and deer. Todd then coaxed a reluctant Campbell to consider applying his skills in the pharmaceutical industry. With some misgivings, Campbell accepted a job at Merck and moved to Rahway, New Jersey.

“I only wanted to work on science for the sake of science and not for utility, but [at Merck] I discovered the tremendous joy and excitement of doing something that might actually be useful,” Campbell says. He stayed with the company for 33 years.

Campbell was an unusual industry scientist for his time. In addition to his assigned work, he regularly pursued independent projects that led to journal publications, invitations to academic conferences, and a fellowship in South and Central America usually reserved for university-affiliated scientists. One of those independent projects led to the discovery of a method to cryogenically freeze certain types of worms for as long as 10 years without killing them.

Painting depicting a vase of flowers, but instead of flowers the vase is full of colorful parasites.
Campbell studies parasitic worms, but he also paints them. He completed Brass Bowl with Tapeworm Bouquet in 2015. Image courtesy of William Campbell

In 1975, Campbell joined a team that was conducting research on cattle roundworms. That team eventually developed ivermectin, widely considered a wonder drug of modern veterinary science. In addition to treating cattle and horses, ivermectin was the first convenient and widely used treatment to prevent heartworm in dogs.

Campbell’s interdisciplinary background helped him hypothesize another use for ivermectin: as a treatment for onchocerciasis, or river blindness. Caused by a parasitic worm and spread by blackflies, river disease was the second-leading cause of blindness worldwide before the 1980s.

“I was in a position to propose that there were reasons why [ivermectin] might work in river blindness, and I passed that word up the line,” Campbell says.

Clinical investigators proved his hunch correct, and Merck executives made the unusual decision to make the drug available to all who needed it for the prevention of river blindness. This, together with the dedicated work of several nongovernmental organizations, resulted in the eradication of the disease in many of the affected countries in South America and Africa.

The significant, ongoing impact of ivermectin led to Campbell sharing a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015. He was invited to the White House to meet President Barack Obama, who gave Campbell a small stuffed toy in the shape of a heartworm.

Campbell’s achievements also earned him the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) in 2023. The WAA’s highest honor, it celebrates prestigious UW graduates for their professional achievements, contributions to society, and support of the university over the course of their career or lifetime. Campbell will receive his award during a ceremony on April 12.

Since retiring from Merck, Campbell has kept busy as a university lecturer at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is also an avid painter, mostly of parasitic worms, and he regularly
donates artworks to the American Society of Parasitologists to auction off as fundraisers for student scholarships.

“I like parasites, even though I’ve spent most of my life trying to kill them,” he says. “I often compare them to flowers — there’s an almost endless variety in their structure and life cycle. It’s absolutely phenomenal.”

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