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A Sad Twist

Awards: Nobel Prize Foundation says prize will stand after recipient dies days before the announcement

by Sarah Everts
October 10, 2011

Credit: Rockefeller U
Credit: Rockefeller U

It’s typically winning scientists who get surprised by a phone call from the Nobel Prize Foundation, but this year the tables were tragically turned.

Just three hours after the foundation announced that one half of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine would go to Rockefeller University immunologist Ralph M. Steinman, the university’s president contacted the foundation to say that Steinman had passed away just three days prior.

After several hours of deliberation, the Nobel Foundation decided that Steinman will remain a Nobel Prize winner. But the situation, which foundation spokeswoman Annika Pontikis calls “unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize,” brought global speculation about what the foundation would decide to do given its rules barring posthumous prizes.

An amendment to those rules in 1974 decreed that someone may keep the Nobel Prize if they pass away after it is awarded by the Nobel committee but before it has been received in Stockholm several months later, according to former Nobel Prize Foundation employee Simon Frantz, who runs the blog Nobel Prize Watch. This situation occurred in 1996 when economics laureate William Vickrey won the prize but died before the ceremony, Frantz notes on his blog.

“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,” Pontikis notes in a statement. “The decision made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute thus remains unchanged.”

As for Steinman’s portion of the prize money, worth approximately $750,000, “there is no decision yet,” Pontikis tells C&EN. “My guess is that it will go to the estate of the deceased.”

“This is really sad news,” saysAndreas Pichlmair, who studies the immune system at Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany. “I knew that Ralph Steinman was very sick, and therefore I was happy he got the prize in time. Apparently not. It’s very sad.”



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