When Alfred B. Nobel created the prizes that bear his name, he decreed that they be given for work done in the preceding year. A seemingly simple provision, intuitively sensible to anyone who follows the Oscars, the Emmys or the Pulitzers.
But it has led to all kinds of trouble — as it did once again this month, when the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was awarded to a dead man.
It is a tangled story, one that could not have been foreseen when Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, died in 1896. But it all traces back to his will, written at a time when philanthropy was unusual and international prizes were a novel idea.
The will hit Sweden with the force of dynamite. Nobel’s heirs and the Swedish establishment tried to break it, in part because they wanted his fortune kept in Sweden, not distributed to the world.
King Oscar II did not attend the first ceremony, in 1901; since then, the reigning monarch has presented the Swedish Nobels. By keeping Sweden in the forefront of world science, the prizes have paid the nation incalculable dividends.
But the will was as flawed as it was revolutionary.
A notable risk-taker in his own research, Nobel was a loner who never married and was sickly for much of his life. He handwrote his will without legal counsel because he did not trust lawyers. He never consulted the executors of his estate or the institutions he entrusted to make the awards.
Indeed, the organization he named to inherit his estate did not even exist, and the executors had to create a foundation to choose the winners and award the prizes — now worth up to $1.5 million each, thanks to the well-managed investment of Nobel’s fortune, which at $9.5 million was one of the largest of its day.
With no blueprints for guidance, the foundation’s committees devised a yearlong selection process from scratch, and they have carried it out with a secrecy that rivals the Vatican’s.
Nobel did not say why he wanted to reward scientists who “made the most important discovery” during the preceding year. One can speculate that he wanted to reward current innovation and not give tombstone awards to Galileo, Hippocrates, Vesalius and other scientists from centuries past.
But will and science often got entangled. The one-year timing proved impractical; scientific findings generally need to percolate, sometimes for decades, before their value is appreciated. After a few stumbles, the committees relaxed that rule.
Presumably to avoid the Galileo problem, they did stipulate that the award be given only to living people; that rule was made formal in the 1970s. (Also, the Nobel Foundation interpreted the will to mean that up to three individuals could share a prize in each category.)
But the rule against posthumous awards has now been violated several times — most recently this month, when the prize in medicine was given to the widow of Dr. Ralph M. Steinman, a scientist at Rockefeller University in Manhattan who died of pancreatic cancer at age 68 on Sept. 30, three days before his election. Dr. Steinman’s discovery of the immunologically important cells that he called dendritics, because of their fingerlike projections, took place in 1973.
The first posthumous laureate was the poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt. Popular in his native Sweden but little known elsewhere, Karlfeldt had refused his selection in 1918 because he was a longtime member of the Swedish Nobel Academy. When he was selected again in 1931, he was in no position to refuse: He had died that April. The Nobel Assembly gave him the prize anyway, noting that he was alive when nominated.
The second posthumous award came in 1961, when Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who became secretary general of the United Nations, was killed in a plane crash on an official mission in Africa. He had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in Oslo. And in 1996, William Vickrey of Columbia University died at 82, three days after winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, but still received it posthumously.
The Nobel election process begins in the fall, when the committees invite experts to nominate scientists by the following Jan. 31. In secret, the hundreds of nominees are winnowed into shorter lists; committee members may travel anywhere to listen to a nominee’s lectures and quietly gather information from colleagues. After the summer, the committees make their recommendations for the Nobel Assembly’s final vote in early October.
What happens if a nominee dies? While the committees would presumably hear about the death of a noted scientist, writer or leader, Dr. Steinman was not a household name, and he died in a narrow window of time: the three days between his election and the announcement.
The regulations do not spell out the obligations of the various parties involved to notify the Nobel committees that a nominee has died. Moreover, if the committees were to check to see whether finalists were still alive, the inquiries would breach the secrecy of the process, tipping off the finalists’ institutions (and, by extension, the news media).
Candidates are not supposed to know they have been nominated, but scientists and academics gossip as much as anyone else. Some publications offer predictions of the winners — usually incorrectly. Officials of major research institutes send out notices suggesting that so-and-so on their faculty is in line for a Nobel and provide journalists with telephone numbers to call at 5:30 a.m. in case their nominee wins.
It is an open secret that many winners and also-rans knew of their nominations. For the laureates, the only element of surprise was learning they had won it in a given year, and not another, because they rarely know the final list.
Nominees usually do not win the first year they are nominated. The also-rans must be renominated each year for further consideration. The names of a number of individuals who died in the months after being nominated are not likely to be disclosed because of the secrecy of the Nobel selection process. The curious must wait 50 years until the Nobel files of the election process are opened.
In Dr. Steinman’s case, the foundation upheld the prize because it was made in good faith and the situation was highly unusual. The foundation’s director general, Dr. Goran K. Hansson, said in a telephone interview that the odds of a similar occurrence were so long — once in 110 years — there was no need to change the rules.
The age of recent science laureates has crept up, so it could happen again well before 110 years have passed. Still, no system is perfect. What prevents a dead candidate’s family, estate or nominating institution from withholding that information in an effort to receive the award? Such speculation — widely repeated on the Web in recent months — may seem unfair, even cynical; Dr. Hansson dismissed it as “outrageous.”
He did add that the Nobel Foundation might consider changes at its next meeting. One possibility would be to withhold the announcement of an award until a Nobel official hears the winner’s voice on the famous notification calls.
But Dr. Hansson said, “I’m not sure the media would accept that situation.”