The awarding of the Nobel Prizes always brings with it an air of excitement. This year however, it’s been tinged with sadness as one of the recipients for the prize for Medicine or Physiology passed away before he’d heard that he had won.
Ralph Steinman from Canada was awarded the prize for “his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity”. He was to share the award with two other scientists: Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann who received one half of the prize for their joint “discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity”.
The Nobel Assembly in Sweden only heard of Steinman’s death after yesterday’s announcement, when his daughter contacted them. The Nobel rules state that the prize cannot be awarded after death, yet the overwhelming weight of opinion is that, as the award was made in good faith and without the knowledge that Steinman had died, the prize should stand.
Steinman discovered a new type of mammalian cell, called dendritic cells in 1973 and went on to show that they were important in the immune system. He showed that these cells act as messengers, indicating what is alien or potential harmful to the cell so that other cells of the immune system (such as T Cells) can deal with them. Dendritic cells tend to be found in cells that are in contact with the outside environment – so skin cells, nose cells, intestines, etc.
The Rockefeller University says that Steinman passed away on Friday aged 68 after fighting pancreatic cancer for four years.
“Ralph’s research has laid the foundation for numerous discoveries in the critically important field of immunology, and it has led to innovative new approaches in how we treat cancer, infectious diseases and disorders of the immune system,” a spokesperson for the University said.
The Nobel Assembly released a statement yesterday afternoon expressing regret at the scientist’s death: “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.”
In a further statement last night, the Nobel Assembly said it would stand over the decision to award the prize, and rightly so, in my view: “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”.
Although there are obvious difficulties with allowing posthumously awarded Nobel prizes, the current ruling does mean that many fine individuals fail to get honoured. For example, Rosalind Franklin should arguably have shared in the Nobel Prize awarded to Francis Crick and James Watson in 1962. Watson and Crick had discovered the structure of DNA in 1953 based on some of Franklin’s results. However, as Franklin had died of cancer in 1958, she could not be awarded the prize.
The prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Peace, Literature and Economics will be announced over the coming week.