Four days after he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, immunologist Ralph M. Steinman was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discoveries about the human body's immune system.
Ralph Steinman, a Canadian scientist at Rockefeller University in New York, shared the most prestigious award in science with American Bruce A. Beutler and French scientist Jules A. Hoffmann, who were also acknowledged for their immune system work.
Given that the Nobel statutes do not allow posthumous awards, the jury was caught off guard when it honoured Steinman completely unaware that he had died just days before the announcement.
After an emergency meeting, the Nobel Foundation confirmed that the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) prize to Steinman will stand despite the timing of his death.
The committee stated, "The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize.
"According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award. However, the statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented."
"Ralph's idea was that you could take a tumor, give it to dendritic cells, and then have the dendritic cells orchestrate a response against the tumor.-- Michel Nussenzweig, a fellow professor at Rockefeller
Steinman used treatment based on his research
In 1973, Dr. Steinman discovered the dendritic cell which plays a key role in unleashing the "killer" T-cells of the body’s defence mechanism to respond to invading microbes.
The discovery has paved the way for development of improved vaccines and therapies to curb infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases.
Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago and was successful in prolonging his life by using a dendritic cell-based immunotherapy for treatment.
Michel Nussenzweig, a fellow professor at Rockefeller, stated, "Ralph's idea was that you could take a tumor, give it to dendritic cells, and then have the dendritic cells orchestrate a response against the tumor.
"He used his own dendritic cells, which were loaded with tumor antigens, as part of his therapy."
Other posthumous winners included Dag Hammarskjold, the former U.N. Secretary-General who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, less than a month after he died in a plane crash during a peace mission to Congo.
Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt was awarded posthumous Nobel Prize for literature in 1931. From 1974, the statutes stipulate that a Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously.