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Belfast-educated scientist William C Campbell wins Nobel Prize for Medicine

By Greg Harkin

Published 06/10/2015

Professor William C Campbell
Professor William C Campbell

An 85-year-old Belfast-educated scientist thought he was the victim of a prank after being told he had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Professor William C Campbell, originally from Ramelton in Donegal, and Professor Satoshi Omura were jointly awarded half the prize for discovering a drug that fights river blindness by roundworm parasites.

The drug, Avermectin, has radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

The drug has also shown effectiveness against a growing range of other parasitic diseases.

They ensured it was distributed free - potentially saving tens of millions of lives in Africa.

William and his two brothers were all sent to boarding school at Campbell College in east Belfast by their father, who ran the general stores in Ramelton in the 1930s.

Professor Campbell said: "It was a great place to grow up and was a great start to life. I begin every lecture by showing a picture of The Mall in Ramelton and then a picture of cows on The Mall, my father's cows, and students always ask about it.

"Of course it has absolutely nothing to do with the lecture, but I like to tell people where I'm from because it is such a part of me."

He says he was shocked when a journalist broke the news of his Nobel to him yesterday morning.

"I thought it was a joke when I was first told about the prize. I was a bit shocked, to be honest. It's a great thrill and I'm delighted for everyone involved in this research," he said.

The retired scientist's proud big brother Bert (88) said Bill "got all the family brains" and put his efforts down to hard work and home schooling.

Bert, who helps run the Ardeen country house B&B in Ramelton with his wife Anne, joked: "My father had a run-in with the local school principal so he brought a teacher in to teach us at home.

"We are so proud of Bill and it was wonderful talking on the phone to him about it.

"His work has made life-changing differences to so many people around the world. With a bit of luck he'll come to see us next year, we've plenty of spare rooms."

Sister-in-law Anne added: "He was here for a week three years ago when he was given an honorary doctorate by Trinity for his discoveries.

"It's a wonderful day for the whole family."

Patrick Prendergast, the Provost of Trinity which Professor Campbell attended, was full of praise for the selfless scientist whose work has helped cure millions of people.

"In 1987 he spearheaded the decision by Merck to distribute that cure free to millions of people in what became one of the first and foremost examples of a public/private partnership in international health," he added.

More than 25 million people are treated every year preventing new cases of river blindness.

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