Canadian Scientist Died Three Days Before Winning Nobel Prize In Medicine

Canadian scientist Ralph Steinman was among three men awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine this morning in Stockholm, but hours later his university announced that he had passed away three days earlier after a battle with cancer:

A Canadian-born scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for his discoveries about the immune system but hours later his university said that he had been dead for three days.

The Nobel committee had been unaware of Ralph Steinman’s death and it was unclear whether the prize would be rescinded because Nobel statutes don’t allow posthumous awards.

Steinman, 68, who shared the prize with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, died on Sept. 30 of pancreatic cancer, acccording to Rockefeller University, which said he had been treated with immunotherapy based on his discovery of dendritic cells two decades earlier.

The cells help regulate adaptive immunity, an immune system response that purges invading microorganisms from the body.

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.


An earlier statement from the award panel at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said, “this year’s Nobel laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation,” the award panel at said in a statement in Stockholm.

The trio’s discoveries have enabled the development of improved vaccines against infectious diseases. In the long term they could also yield better treatments of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and chronic inflammatory diseases, hansson said.

Beutler and Hoffmann were cited for their discoveries in the 1990s of receptor proteins that can recognize bacteria and other microorganisms as they enter the body, and activate the first line of defense in the immune system, known as innate immunity.

The work of the three scientists has been pivotal to the development of improved types of vaccines against infectious diseases and novel approaches to fighting cancer. The research has helped lay the foundations for a new wave of “therapeutic vaccines” that stimulate the immune system to attack tumors.

“They have made possible the development of new methods for preventing and treating disease, for instance with improved vaccines against infections and in attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors,” the committee said.

Sad news, indeed, and there’ s no word on what happens to Steinman’s Nobel considering that the was dead when it was awarded. Typically, Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.

Update: The committee that awards the Nobel Prize in Medicine has announced that Steinman will be given the award posthumously:

Canadian scientist Ralph Steinman will keep his Nobel prize for medicine, the Nobel Foundation has said, after his death on Friday threw it into doubt.

The rules state “work by a person since deceased shall not be considered”.

But the foundation said it was unaware of Prof Steinman’s death from pancreatic cancer and that the award had been made “in good faith”.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Jay Tea says:

    I’d argue that it should stand. He was alive when nominated, and (presumably) alive when chosen, and regardless the Committee believed him to be alive. I suspect the intent was to keep it from being awarded out of sympathy, and that played no part here.


  2. PJ says:

    Before 1974 the statutes allowed posthumous awards, now they don’t.
    3 days, 3 weeks, 3 years, or 3 decades; it doesn’t matter. If the person has died before the announcement then he/she can’t receive the award. If the person dies between the announcement and the ceremony then the award can be given posthumous.

  3. george says:

    Looks like the Nobel Prize committee decided to go ahead with the award, on the grounds that it was awarded in good faith. Which strikes me as a reasonable call.

    Its funny that the Nobel Peace prize is the one that gets most of the media attention, but its not only the most political (often going to very questionable people because of it), but it has by far the least consequence for humanity in the long term – the long term benefits from science tend to far outweigh the kinds of things the peace prize is given for.
    And as far as that goes, the peace prize is awarded by a different committee than the scientific awards – and I think it shows.