Interview with the 2015 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine William C. Campbell on 6 December 2015, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
William C. Campbell discusses what brought him to science; his Nobel Prize-awarded work (2:26); Eureka moments (4:22); what motivates him (5:37); his relationship with the students (8:47); when he does his best thinking; his gift to the Nobel Museum (11:21); remaining challenges in his research field (14:53); what advice he would give himself at 20 years (17:22); the relation between art and science (18:40); his poetry writing (20:48); the joy of teaching (23:58) and his life after the Nobel Prize (26:03).
“You must be kidding!”
Telephone interview with William C. Campbell following the announcement of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 5 October 2015. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Transcript of the interview
[William Campbell] Hello.
[Adam Smith] Oh, hello, my name is Adam Smith, I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, the official website of the Nobel Prize, in Stockholm.
[AS] Have you heard the news?
[AS] Where were you when you heard this news?
[WC] I was asleep.
[AS] What was your first reaction?
[WC] Well, the first thing I said was ‘You must be kidding!’ and, I thought, the first thing I did after that was to ask for a way to verify that this could be genuine because it just seemed impossible.
[AS] [Laughs] And how long did it take to convince you?
[WC] Not very long because they told me to go on the website. And one of the reasons I thought it was impossible is that I believe the Nobel Prize cannot be given to a group except for one particular area, and this work was the product of a group. It often is, but in this case especially.
[AS] The production of a drug from start to finish requires so very many people doesn’t it?
[WC] Yes exactly, and so I think of it as an award that I’m the representative of the Merck Company’s research team.
[AS] That’s lovely. Can you describe the difference you think that the drug, that Ivermectin in particular, has made to the world?
[WC] Well it has made a huge impact in preventing blindness. Blindness anywhere, and especially in certain areas of the world, is likely to be calamitous and fatal because people cannot be productive and make a living when they are blind, in some circumstances. So it has certainly changed lives and changed the ability of people to live in certain fertile areas of land which they had had to abandon because of the disease, and this enables them to repopulate areas that had been abandoned, so that has been another way it has been important.
[AS] That’s a very important point to emphasise, thank you. And one key step in all this was that you turned to nature to provide the anti-parasitic drugs. Do you think that nature is a store of tremendous numbers of as-yet unknown medicines?
[WC] Yes, and I have written about that, and I have works in press about that. I feel very strongly about that. I think one of the big mistakes we’ve made all along is, and I’ve been writing about that for 40 years, is that there is a certain amount of hubris in humans thinking that they can create molecules as well as nature can create molecules in terms of the diversity of molecules, because nature consistently produces molecules that have not been thought of by humans.
[AS] Lastly, I can hear in your voice that lovely Irish lilt [Laughs].
[WC] [Laughs] I don’t suppose there’s much of it left any more.
[AS] Well actually I was thinking there was a rather surprisingly nice amount. So I guess they’ll be celebrating in Ireland as well today.
[WC] Currently in Ireland, my brother and his wife, who got this before I did, and so I was awakened and put on a radio show in County Donegal. Nobody else, including me, knew about it properly, so my family there were thrilled. They called me to tell me about it.
[AS] That’s nice, I guess you’ll be receiving calls throughout the day and the week and the months ahead.
[WC] My phone is ringing, my cell phone and my landline number are both ringing constantly and it’s a great thrill and a great honour, and a great honour to have been part of this team effort.
[AS] That’s lovely, well thank you.
[WC] And that’s the point I want to emphasise.
[AS] Thank you. Well we very much look forward to welcoming you to Stockholm in December and when you come then we’ll have a chance to talk more.
[AS] In December. So the Awards ceremony is on December 10th.
[WC] What, of this year?
[AS] Yes, of this year. So it’s in …
[WC] No kidding! Wow. Oh, gosh. That’s a shock. I look forward to being there, of course.
[AS] Thank you.
[WC] Thank you so much.
[AS] I look forward to seeing you in December. Thank you, bye bye.