Dr. William Campbell honored by President Obama—and receives a special memento.

campbellmaryann
Before the visit: Campbell with his wife, Mary, and Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, D.C.

November 2015 – It’s a busy time for the American Nobel Laureates, including William Campbell, the Drew University associate fellow who shares a 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Satoshi Omura of Japan. On Nov. 10, the four U.S. winners were in Washington, D.C., taking part in a symposium at the Embassy of Sweden before visiting the White House and dining at the Swedish ambassador’s home. In an interview with Drew.edu, Campbell described his trip to the White House, which took place around noon.

Did you actually get to meet the president?

Yes, absolutely. Furthermore, this is what was really amazing: not only did I get to meet him—and to get his picture with my wife and me and with the other American Laureates—but he reached into his pocket and pulled out a little stuffed objected representing a dog heartworm. A stuffed animal. So, I have that as a memento.

Were you in the Oval Office?

Yes, in the Oval Office.

How long did it last?

Well, they said it was a bit longer than usual. That was probably because everybody can relate to medical affairs and the American Laureates included those for chemistry of DNA and economics—the Laureate who works on poverty. Anyway, the president was interested in science. He was very charming. So, it lasted a good 15 minutes or 20 minutes.

Was it just a meet and greet?

It was more than meet and greet. He didn’t just shake our hands. He actually stood chatting to us. Actually, one of the Laureates asked him a question, which was a surprise. This was a man from Turkey. He asked if he could ask a question and Obama said, “Sure.” So, he asked him a question about funding for basic research, and Obama talked about how he was trying to get the research budget increased, and how he got it increased here but couldn’t get it increased there.

Who asked the question?

It was Dr. Aziz Sancar. He is a very impressive guy.

Was he the chemistry winner?

Yes, he was one of the chemistry winners.

You’re lucky that there wasn’t a major crisis that day and the president could keep the appointment.

Yes, exactly. He said he loves doing that every year—talking to the Nobel Prize winners. He was very gracious, very friendly and chatty.

Was the memento inside his jacket?

It was in the inside pocket of his jacket. He pulled out this thing, which is actually made commercially and has a label saying, “Heartworm.” It doesn’t look much like a heartworm! But there’s no way you could make it look like a heartworm.

Is it the size of your finger?

Yes, it’s about the size of your finger, a very fat finger.

What are you going to do with it?

I don’t know. The only thing I could think of is I could donate it to the Nobel Museum in Sweden because they ask very particularly and have an occasion where you can go to the museum and they would like people to donate something—maybe a specimen from their lab. And I can’t think of anything! But I want to show my family first, of course, and my friends.

Was meeting the president like an out-of-body experience?

It was very moving. It still is.

Well, it’s well deserved and it’s great that your work is getting recognized.

I suspect people who get the prize often don’t feel quite sure how well deserved it is. Maybe that’s what makes it so moving because you don’t think of yourself as a Nobel Prize winner.