When Annette Campbell-White bought her first rare book, she had to spend nearly half her monthly take-home pay to do it. It was 1972, and she was 25 and living in London. She had a temporary job, helping to compile an encyclopedia of rocks and minerals, and lived on about 100 pounds a month. She was also lonely and spent many free hours at a rare book shop near Kensington High Street.
One day, she came across a limited edition of A Song for Simeon by T.S. Eliot, signed by the author. The book — which contained a single poem — was one of the “Ariel poems” sent to patrons of the British publisher Faber and Faber as Christmas gifts. “Anybody who loved literature at that time worshipped T.S. Eliot and I thought, ‘God, this is amazing. It’s like T.S. Eliot is right here in the room with me,’” says Campbell-White. She bought the book, which cost 45 pounds, in what she calls “an act of tremendous folly.” For the next month, she subsisted on cereal.
But the purchase ignited a lifelong passion for book collecting, which she has written about in her new tome, Beyond Market Value: A Memoir of Book Collecting and the World of Venture Capital. It’s the focus of an exhibit, “Modernist Networks: The Annette Campbell-White Collection,” currently on display at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center in Austin. The exhibit includes original manuscripts and correspondence by Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
The native New Zealander was able to assemble such a collection only because she’s come a long way from living on 100 pounds a month. Campbell-White, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in physical chemistry from University of Cape Town in South Africa, left Great Britain a few years after buying the Eliot book and moved to the Bay Area. Here, she embarked on a trailblazing career in biotech, which included stops at the Stanford Research Institute and the investment firm Hambrecht & Quist. She was Hambrecht & Quist’s first female partner and a key player in the Genentech IPO.`
But Campbell-White created her greatest impact in 1986, striking out on her own to found the venture capital firm MedVenture, which specialized in early-stage funding for biomedical technologies. “She really enjoyed being the first one on the scene to sit down and have a cup of coffee with a talented entrepreneur, doctor or inventor,” says Bob Momsen, who is retired from InterWest Partners, a limited partner of MedVenture. “And then, just because she believed in the unmet medical need and the talent of the entrepreneur, she was willing to fund them to the point where other, larger funds would get involved. She really was a pioneer in what the venture world calls ‘seed financing.’ Most people didn’t have the courage to do it.”
Because of her science background, Campbell-White excelled at taking calculated risks and knowing what would work and what wouldn’t. She passed on the ill-fated Theranos, while helping to launch the first off-fingerstick glucose blood testing monitor, the first cervical disk implant and the first digital hearing aid.
Throughout her career, Campbell-White was often the only woman in the room, which led to a few indignities. In one incident in 1981, she attended the annual Hambrecht & Quist new partners cocktail party at the Pacific Union Club, which at the time did not admit women, even as guests. George Quist pressured the club to let her in and the club relented — as long as she entered through the kitchen. Campbell-White ignored the slight and says now that “being a woman never stopped me from achieving anything I wanted to do.”
That included becoming a major book collector, a passion that arose from her love of reading as a child, when she comforted herself with Enid Blyton and A.A. Milne books as her family moved from place to place around the British Commonwealth. She originally collected World War I–era poetry, but then shifted to collect the 100 titles listed in British literary critic Cyril Connolly’s The Modern Movement: 100 Key Books from England, France and America, 1880–1950. After completing the Connolly collection — and feeling the burden of caring for so many valuable items — she sold it at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 2007.
Among the items put up for sale were a first edition of The Great Gatsby, a first edition of In Our Time, inscribed by Ernest Hemingway, and a signed first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Each was valued at more than 60,000 pounds. But, writes Campbell-White in her book, “I wasn’t looking for profit. On the contrary, I had chosen to build this collection simply because it was the ultimate expression of my passion for books and the written word.” She now misses the books she sold. “I’ve never ceased to regret having that auction,” she admits.
But the sale moved her in a new direction: collecting manuscripts and letters by notable authors. This includes letters by Virginia Woolf and her circle, and a number of letters written by Hemingway to an old girlfriend while he convalesced in a hospital in Italy. “They’re documents of relationships,” says Thomas Goldwasser, a rare book dealer in San Francisco, “because Annette cares about a particular author and wants to know about that person, about his or her friends and influences, and what went into making the writing interesting.”
Campbell-White retired from MedVenture in 2015, which has given her more time for collecting — and writing her book. She’s also been involved with the Kia Ora Foundation, which she started in 1997 to help post graduate music and science students from New Zealand study abroad. And, until recently, she was on the board of the San Francisco Opera.
Later this month, Campbell-White and her husband of 34 years, Ruediger Naumann-Etienne, will move from their Oakland home to an 18th-century rectory in Kent, England, to be closer to family. The rectory is currently being renovated. When completed, it will include a library where Campbell-White can spend time with her books, and read and reflect. “Because of the age of my collection, it’s a part of history,” she says, “and history is one of those things that teach you that it doesn’t really matter what’s going on right now. You can be part of an industry and fit in somehow, but you got on the boat at one point and you get off the boat at another point. But the river is going to keep going.”