Breaking! Nobel laureate Steinman died last Friday — and posthumous awards are not allowed.

UPDATE 2! Steinman will keep his award. 

 The Nobel foundation said in a statement:

The decision to award the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the late Ralph Steinman shall remain unchanged, in keeping with the earlier announcement from the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet.

As announced earlier, Ralph Steinman – one of this year’s three Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine – died on September 30. This information reached the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet via the president of Rockefeller University, where Steinman worked, at 14.30 CET on October 3, 2011. Earlier the same day, at 11.30 CET, the Nobel Assembly had announced the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine without knowing of Ralph Steinman’s death. 

The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize. 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 purpose of the above-mentioned rule is to make it clear that the Nobel Prize shall not deliberately be awarded posthumously. However, 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. This was true – though not at the time of the decision – only a day or so previously. The Nobel Foundation thus believes that what has occurred is more reminiscent of the example in the statutes concerning a person who has been named as a Nobel Laureate and has died before the actual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.

The decision made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet thus remains unchanged.


Press release: 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.

The Nobel Assembly, consisting of 50 professors at Karolinska Institutet, awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Its Nobel Committee evaluates the nominations. Since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been awarded to scientists who have made the most important discoveries for the benefit of mankind.

BBC reports: In 1931, Erik Axel Karlfeldt was posthumously awarded the Nobel prize for literature, but the rules were changed in 1974. The Nobel Foundation states: “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.” This happened in 1996 when William Vickrey died between the announcement and the prize ceremony.

The issue is being discussed at the moment and a decision should be made by Tuesday.


This morning Ralph M. Steinman was one of 3 scientists awarded the Nobel prize for medicine ”for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity“.

Swedish Radio has just announced that Prof. Steinman apparently passed away last Friday and the Nobel Awards committee was not aware of this when they announced the awards today. He died of cancer which he had been suffering from for the last 4 years. He passed away without knowing he had been awarded the prize.

The Nobel rules do not allow for posthumous awards and there is now some confusion as to whether Steinman will be a Nobel laureate or not.

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.

Portrait of Professor Ralph M. Steinman

Professor Ralph M. Steinman 1943 - 2011

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One Response to “Breaking! Nobel laureate Steinman died last Friday — and posthumous awards are not allowed.”

  1. Storm in a Nobel tea-cup « The k2p blog Says:

    […] Yesterday the party atmosphere for what was to be a week of celebrations at the Nobel Foundation was converted into a confused round of frantic phone calls and emergency meetings when it became known that the medicine prize winner Ralph Steinman had died last Friday. The media have been full of stories about the embarrassment this has caused and the chaos that ensued. Nevertheless the Foundation came to the decision  – fairly quickly and quite rightly in my opinion – that Steinman would retain the award. […]

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