Nobel Assembly’s statement in response to Ralph Steinman’s death

The Nobel Assembly’s site appears to be down, so I thought I’d post their statement in response to Ralph Steinman’s death below (which I actually ended up fishing from Scott Hensley’s tumblr feed).

It’s a brief but respectful response, and it’s difficult to know what will happen next, as this is unchartered territory. As the secretary of the Nobel Assembly, Goran Hansson, told The Guardian, this appears to be the first time since the posthumous prize rule changes were made in 1974 that the prize has been awarded to someone who had died.

As I mentioned in my last post, under the current Nobel statutes posthumous awards are not allowed unless a Laureate dies after the announcement, but before the award ceremony. So, it’s worth noting the sentence in the statement that reads: “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.” [emphasis mine].

Steinman died three days ago, so whether knowledge of a Laureate’s death after a decision and announcement falls under the same definition as a Laureate dying after a decision and announcement, we’ll soon find out. The Medicine Prize Committee are no doubt examining the rules in minute detail in order to work out the next steps to take.

UPDATE (10/3): has published an official statement to say that the decision to award Ralph Steinman still stands. As I suggested above, the key issue is that Ralph Steinman was believed to be alive at announcement time – I’ve pasted the relevant section of the statement below.

Kudos to the Nobel Assembly for making a tricky but honourable decision.

“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.

“The decision made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet thus remains unchanged.”


Med djup sorg har Nobelförsamlingen vid Karolinska Institutet mottagit beskedet att professor Ralph Steinman, en av årets tre Nobelpristagare i fysiologi eller medicin, avled under natten mellan 30:e september och 1:a oktober. Detta besked gavs av rektorn för Rockefeller University, där Steinman var verksam, kl 14.30 (CET) måndagen den 3:e oktober 2011, efter beslutet och tillkännagivandet om årets Nobelpris. Våra tankar går till Ralph Steinmans familj och medarbetare.

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.


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.

Tributes to Wangari Maathai

Fighter, Champion, Nobel Laureate,” is how Forbes describes the Kenyan environmental activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai, who died on Sunday, at the age of 71. As well as stirring obituaries describing her efforts to take on the corrupt Kenyan government, and empower women to protect the environment (for instance, here, here and here), you can read personal recollections of the tireless campaigner and add to the well-wishers posting their tributes on Maathai’s Facebook wall.

Many obituaries illustrate Maathai’s legacy through this quote from her Nobel Prize Lecture: “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

It’s also worth noting how her Peace Prize was criticized at the time by some quarters. People asked why environmental activism was being honoured at a time in which war and terrorism were more pressing problems (you can read a spirited defence of Maathai’s prize made at the time.), not to mention the controversial remarks Maathai was alleged to have made about HIV/AIDS.

On a lighter note, if you are in the UK, you can gain further insight into Maathai through her choices on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, her book being the Koran and her luxury a huge basket of fruit. (For the non-Brits, this long-running radio programme, and a British institution, allows guests to choose eight pieces of music, one book and one luxury item with which to be marooned on a deserted island.)

However, on this occasion, images speak the loudest. To get a sense of Maathai’s inner strength and persuasiveness, watch this video clip from the film “Dirt”, in which she tells the story of the humble hummingbird — I defy you not to be inspired and moved by it.