Triumph and tragedy
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89
First the news was sensational. Then it was sad. Then it got a little strange.
On Monday October 3, the Nobel Prize Foundation announced that Rockefeller University immunologist Ralph Steinman, BSc’63, would be the seventh McGill graduate to become a Nobel laureate. No sooner had the celebrations begun before they were cut short by a heart-rending update – Steinman had passed away just a few days earlier.
This posed a dilemma for the Nobel Foundation. Its longstanding policy is to not award prizes posthumously, but no one from the foundation had known about Steinman’s death when he was selected as one of its three 2011 Nobel Laureates in Medicine. Would the award be rescinded?
The foundation deliberated the matter and came to a quick conclusion. Steinman’s Nobel would stand. “The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize,” the foundation announced.
Steinman earned the Nobel for his co-discovery of dendritic cells in 1973. These cells play a unique role, serving as a first line of defense against antigens, and alerting the immune system to potential threats. Though the scientific community was initially skeptical about the finding, Steinman’s work is widely influential today. Existing and potential treatments for cancer, HIV and transplant rejection all owe their origins to his research.
Before his death, Steinman was rumoured to be in the running for the Nobel. At a press conference, his daughter Alexis Steinman remembered joking with her father in the days leading up to the prize announcement. “We said to him, ‘Hang on until Monday’” when the winners would be announced.
He wasn’t able to, but he won his Nobel all the same.