Update: Nobel Laureate Who Died On Friday Will Still Be Honored

Oct 3, 2011
Originally published on October 3, 2011 4:46 pm

1:30 p.m. ET: The Nobel Foundation just announced that American Ralph Steinman, one of three scientists honored today with Nobel Prizes in medicine, will still be honored even though he died on Friday. As we reported earlier, Nobels are normally not awarded posthumously — but in this case, the prize committee did not know Steinman had died.

"The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize," the committee says in its statement. "In light of this, the Board of the Nobel Foundation has held a meeting this afternoon.

"According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award. However, the statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented.

"An interpretation of the purpose of this rule leads to the conclusion that Ralph Steinman shall be awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine."

The statement adds that "the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive."

Our original post and earlier update:

"Work produced by a person since deceased shall not be considered for an award. If, however, a prizewinner dies before he has received the prize, then the prize may be presented."

That's one of the rules in the Statues of the Nobel Foundation, and it's suddenly pertinent because it's just been announced that Rockefeller University scientist Ralph Steinman died on Friday.

Today, Steinman and two other scientists were awarded the Nobel in medicine for their discoveries about the human immune system.

The Associated Press reports that "Nobel committee member Goran Hansson said the Nobel committee didn't know Steinman was dead when it chose him as a winner and was looking through its regulations."

Judging from the Nobel announcement today, it certainly appears Hansson is correct — the committee members didn't known Steinman had died. Here's the short version of the biography of him the committee posted. As you can see, he's referred to in the present tense:

"Ralph M. Steinman was born in 1943 in Montreal, Canada, where he studied biology and chemistry at McGill University. After studying medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, USA, he received his MD in 1968. He has been affiliated with Rockefeller University in New York since 1970, has been professor of immunology at this institution since 1988, and is also director of its Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases."

Steinman, 68, "was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design,"according to Rockefeller University, where he was a professor.

As we reported earlier, while American Bruce Beutler and Luxembourg-born Jules Hoffman are set to share one half of the $1.46 million prize because their work was related, Steinman was to get the other half.

According to the Nobel website,

"There is one posthumous Nobel Peace Prize, to Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961. From 1974, the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate that a Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, unless death has occurred after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Before 1974, the Nobel Prize was also awarded posthumously to Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Nobel Prize in Literature 1931)."

And there is precedent for someone dying after a prize is announced, but before it has been awarded. The 1996 winner in economics, William Vickrey, "died only a few days after the announcement that he was one of the recipients. ... In accordance with the wishes of his widow, Cecile Vickrey, the prize [was] received by his longtime friend and colleague Lowell Harriss."

We wonder:

Update at 11:15 a.m. ET. The Nobel committee has issued a statement that does not directly address the issue of what will be done, but continues to refer to Steinman as "one of this year's three Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine." It reads:

"It is with deep sadness and regret that the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has learned that Professor Ralph Steinman, one of this year's three Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, passed away on September 30. This message was conveyed by The President of The Rockefeller University, where Professor Steinman worked, at 2.30 pm (CET), Monday October 3, 2011, after the decision and announcement about this year´s Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. Our thoughts are with Ralph Steinman´s family and colleagues."

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