Nobel Prize posthumous rules explained

When I wrote about excitement in my last post, I had no idea how events would progress, and that they would do so in such a sad manner. Not long after the 2011 Medicine Prize announcement, Rockefeller University announced that Ralph Steinman had died last Friday from pancreatic cancer. It seems to be an extraordinarily sad coincidence; according to the release the family only notified Rockefeller of the news this morning.

Naturally, people are asking what will be the fate of Steinman’s share of the prize. An official press release is due shortly, but in the meantime it’s worth clarifying what the rules are for posthumous prizes.

The posthumous rules changed in 1974. Before 1974, a person could be awarded a prize posthumously if he or she had already been nominated, which was the case with Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Nobel Prize in Literature 1931) and Dag Hammarskjöld (Nobel Peace Prize, 1961). Under the 1974 Staute changes, the prize may only go to a deceased person if the recipient dies between the time the award is announced and the date the prize is awarded (December 10)

This has occurred only once since the 1974 statute changes (William Vickrey, 1996 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).

It’s not clear how bound the Nobel committee are to the statutes, or what they will do now that the award has already been announced. In the meantime, I’m sure that everyone who offered congratulations only a few hours ago will offer their thoughts to Steinman’s wife, children and family during this bittersweet time.


3 thoughts on “Nobel Prize posthumous rules explained

  1. This is wrong: “Before 1974, a person could be awarded a prize posthumously if he or she had already been nominated”. This is the current situation.

    Before 1974, a prize could be awarded posthumously. A famous case is Rosalind Franklin, where there have been conspiracy theories about “what would have happened” had she not died, and “would she have been awarded the Nobel prize”. The truth is that she was eligible, and did not win it.

  2. Marcel, there’s an important clarification to make here. The old statute meant a person could be awarded a prize posthumously if he or she had already been nominated in that calendar year. Nominations in previous years don’t carried over to subsequent prize years, even now. So, sadly under the rules Rosalind Franklin wasn’t eligible for a prize after she died in 1958, which meant she couldn’t have been nominated for the 1962 prize that Crick, Watson and Wilkins received.

  3. Pingback: Nobel Assembly statement in response to Ralph Steinman’s death | Nobel Prize Watch

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