Three days before receiving one of the highest honors in medicine -- the Nobel Prize -- Ralph Steinman of Rockefeller University passed away from pancreatic cancer. He didn't know about his award, which was announced today, and the committee didn't know about his death.
Because a Nobel prize winner must be living to be honored with the distinction, the committee is in a bind. The committee's rules explicitly state "work produced by a person since deceased shall not be considered for an award" but "if a prize winner dies before he has received the prize, then the prize may be presented".
New Scientist reports a similar case where the recipient passed away two days after the announcement:
The closest precedent was the award of the economics prize in 1996 to William Vickrey, who died two days after the announcement that he had won. Vickrey clearly retained the prize, as he is still listed as the winner for that year.
In Steinman's case, however he died before rather than after the announcement. The award could therefore be said to be posthumous – and so against the rules.
Steinman was one of three physicians announced this morning as Nobel prize winners in physiology and medicine. According to a statement from the university, Steinman was chosen for his work in "discovering the immune system's sentinel dendritic cells and demonstrating that science can fruitfully harness the power of these cells and other components of the immune system to curb infections and other communicable diseases." The statement says his own life benefited from immunotherapy of his own design.
“We are all so touched that our father’s many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize,” his daughter, Alexis Steinman said in a statement. “He devoted his life to his work and his family, and he would be truly honored.”
New Scientist reports that the committee will meet in the coming days to decide if Steinman is still eligible to receive the award.