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.