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First Posthumous 
Nobel Awarded

Immunologist Ralph Steinman won the Nobel Prize in Medicine days after his death.

By Veronique Greenwood
May 20, 2012 12:00 AMMay 21, 2019 4:32 PM


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On the morning of Monday, October 3, the Nobel Committee announced that immunologist Ralph Steinman had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on immune cells and a discovery that led to the first therapeutic cancer vaccine. The members were then staggered to learn that Steinman had died the previous Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. The news created an unusual problem: Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously. But the committee decided to make an exception for Steinman, given his very recent death, and announced later on Monday that he would remain a laureate.

Although Erik Axel Karlfeldt won the 1931 Nobel Prize in Literature six months after his death and Dag Hammarskjöld died a month before he was named winner of the 1961 Peace Prize, Steinman is the first posthumous winner since the prohibition began in 1974. A fortunate side effect of the ruckus over Steinman’s prize is the attention his remarkable work has drawn. With the help of numerous 
colleagues, Steinman devised experimental cancer treatments that he tested on himself. That he lived for four years after being diagnosed, rather than the usual several months, may have been the best prize of all.

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