When Claudia Steinman accepted the Nobel prize for medicine on her late husband’s behalf, she seemed to shut out the watching crowd to share a private moment with him. She gazed up to the ceiling at Stockholm’s Concert Hall with a serene smile, closed her eyes and, with a hand draped in a black, elbow-length glove, blew Ralph Steinman a kiss.
For a second, the room was silent. Then it broke out in rousing applause.
“You could feel the emotion in the air,” said Merci Olsson, the marketing and communications director at Nobel Media who attended the banquet Saturday night. “Everyone was quite moved by that gesture.”
Dr. Steinman was alive when Nobel committee members chose to honour the Canadian cell biologist. And when they announced their decision on Oct. 2, they didn’t know Dr. Steinman had died three days earlier at age 68.
The Nobel foundation doesn’t give awards posthumously, and for a short time it was uncertain whether Dr. Steinman’s win would stand, but the decision was upheld because he was alive when he was selected.
“It was the first time that someone has actually received it after they have passed away,” Ms. Olsson said. “That’s a unique decision.”
Dr. Steinman, who was born in Montreal, received the honour for his 1973 discovery of dendritic cells, which have become key to understanding how immune-based diseases progress and how they can be treated. It was research that helped prolong his life after he developed pancreatic cancer.
In presenting the award on Saturday, Nobel committee member Goran Hansson, said Dr. Steinman’s research “provided us with new tools in the struggle against disease.”
Frequently cited as a contender for the Nobel, Dr. Steinman had been thinking about the prize from his hospital death bed in September.
“We were like, ‘Okay, dad, I know things aren’t going well. But the Nobel – they’re going to announce it next Monday,’” Dr. Steinman’s daughter, Alexis, told reporters in October after his win was announced. He was determined to stay alive long enough to claim it, his daughter said.
When it was finally announced, “it was a wave of incredible sadness and then a wave of incredible pride and excitement,” Claudia Steinman told reporters at the time.
The $1.5-million prize was shared with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, for their discoveries in the 1990s of the defensive immune properties of receptor proteins.
“I’d like to think that Ralph somehow did know he was destined to get the prize this year,” Dr. Beutler said recently. “I’m sure he would have been enormously happy, but somehow I think he knew about it, that it was coming anyway.”
He said Dr. Steinman’s family “should take solace in the fact that he’s really [immortal]in the pantheon of scientists.”
With a report from Associated Press