It seems likely that this year’s Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine will be remembered by many people who normally forget about it before the physics prize is even announced. One of the three prize winners, Ralph Steinman, passed away last Friday.
The Nobel Prizes are not usually awarded posthumously; the Nobel Prize website, in fact, states that such awards are “not possible,” and so it is unclear whether Steinman is, indeed, a Nobelist or not. According to a report by the Associated Press, committee members didn't know Steinman was dead when they chose him as a winner and are reviewing regulations.
I was lucky enough to get to see Ralph Steinman speak at the 2007 Lasker Awards ceremony. But the main thing I remember about him is not from the speech itself, but from the reception beforehand, where, spotting one of his friends, he said, in a slightly dazed, slightly amazed tone: “So many people came!”
Perhaps it is because of this glimpse of humility that the questions about whether or not Steinman is a Nobelist or not remind me of the 1999 funeral of my grandfather.
For the record, my grandfather was no Lasker Award winner. In fact, he never went to college. Nor was Ralph Steinman anywhere near old enough to be my grandfather.
But in that pleasure of spending time and being appreciated by those who mattered to them, the two men remind me of each other.
At my grandfather’s funeral, we didn’t talk about biomedical research or Nobel Prizes, as far as I can remember. But we did talk about soccer. My grandfather was from Southern Germany, but his grandchildren had spread across much of the country, and at one point, we sat there wondering whether we had to root for his soccer team – Bayern Muenchen – to win in his honor, now that he was dead.
We sat there, and looked at each other, and then one of my cousins said “I can’t root for them. No, I can’t.”
At which point, one of my aunts broke in: “Oh, he’s in heaven now! Surely he’s relaxed a bit about that! I think that if anything, he has to root for our teams now.”
Twitter has been lively with discussion about whether Steinman can, and should, keep his prize. I hope he gets to, for his family’s sake.
But it also seems to me that, well, surely he has relaxed a bit about that. And from the sort of man he seemed to be, it seems entirely possible that he would want us to remember him, of course. But also to be happy for Bruce Beutler and Jules Hofmann today.
Rest in peace, Ralph Steinman, 1943-2011. I hope you are and remain a Nobelist. But whether you do or not, from the tiny glimpses I got, it looked like you made the most of your time here. And that, it seems to me, is what matters.