“The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize,” the Nobel Foundation said in a statement.
Earlier on Monday, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, which is responsible for picking the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, announced that Steinman, along with Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann, would share the 2011 prize for their groundbreaking research into the workings of the immune system.
Unbeknownst to Nobel officials, however, Steinman had died on September 30th, aged 68, following a battle with pancreatic cancer.
News that Steinman had passed away prior to both the prize announcement and the actual decision to award him the Nobel, cast uncertainty over his award.
According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, the prize is not to be awarded to someone posthumously.
However, the statutes also specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and dies before receiving it, the prize may nevertheless be awarded to the late recipient.
Questions about how to deal with the unique circumstances of Steinman's situation prompted the Board of the Nobel Foundation to meet for much of Monday afternoon in order to come to a decision as to whether or not he would be able to retain his share of the award.
The Board concluded that Steinman would still be awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize, opting to interpret the rule against posthumous awards as meaning that the prize should not “deliberately” be awarded to someone known to be dead.
“However, the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive. This was true – though not at the time of the decision – only a day or so previously,” the Foundation said.
The Foundation likened the situation surrounding Steinman's award to that of a person who has been named as a Nobel Laureate and then died before the actual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.
As a result of the Foundation Board's ruling, the decision made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet “remains unchanged”, the foundation said.