October 3, 2011 1:29 pm

Canada’s posthumous Nobel Prize winner always did things his own way

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MONTREAL – Nobel Prize winner Ralph Steinman always did things his own way, even as a child: he tried to run away from home at age seven and gave his parents the silent treatment because they sent him to summer camp.

Later in life, the Canadian-born cell biologist worked to fight off cancer with the help of his own scientific breakthrough.

Now Steinman holds the distinction of forcing the Nobel committee to overlook its eligibility rules: he will be awarded the prestigious prize for medicine, even though he died three days earlier.

“We’re so proud, but so sad at the same time,” his sister-in-law, Linda Steinman, said of the Nobel honour Monday.

“It’s like the final great acknowledgment of a life’s work.”

She described him as a strong-willed individual who personified this trait at an early age while growing up in Sherbrooke, Que., east of Montreal.

Fed up with the strict rules imposed at home by his mother, little Ralph Steinman one day stuffed a few belongings into a suitcase and hit the road.

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If it weren’t for the observant milkman, who noticed the Steinman boy marching through town, the future Nobel winner may have continued all the way to his destination: 150 kilometres away in Montreal, where he planned to live with grandma.

A couple of years later, Linda Steinman said that the boy was so mad that his parents had sent him to summer camp that he refused to utter a word to them when they showed up on visiting day.

He hated having people tell him when to wake up, when to swim and when to play games, she said.

“So, my mother-in-law ran to the nurse and doctor in the infirmary and said, ‘What have you done to my kid? What’s wrong?’ ” Linda Steinman, who’s married to Ralph’s older brother Seymour, said from Montreal.

That day, Ralph Steinman swore he would never send his own kids to summer camp – a promise he kept.

“That was Ralph, he was delicious,” his sister-in-law said.

She described him as a humble family man who had passions for gardening, travelling and salsa dancing with his wife – pastimes that made it hard for relatives to remember that, by day, he was a scientist of global acclaim.

“He was Ralph, that’s how we knew him,” Linda Steinman told The Canadian Press.

“Ralph was not taken with any of his accomplishments, it was just part of his work.

“He never spoke of them. He would tell the family after the fact – he would say it’s no big deal.”

Born in Montreal, Ralph Steinman spent his formative years in Sherbrooke, where he eventually worked at Mozart’s, the family’s department store.

He was the second-eldest of four children – Seymour, Mark and Joni.

After high school, he moved to Montreal to study science at McGill University, where he completed a biochemistry degree in 1963 and earned a scholarship to Harvard University’s medical school. He graduated from Harvard in 1968.

Two years later, he landed at Rockefeller University in New York, where he carried out his trail-blazing research and discovered dendritic cells in the early 1970s.

Dendritic cells help regulate adaptive immunity, an immune system response that purges invading micro-organisms from the body.

Linda Steinman said he worked hard to build a case for his discovery.

“They told him, ‘It can’t be,’ ” she said.

“But it can and it is – and so many wonderful things are coming from this.”

She said Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer for the first time four-and-a-half years ago.

He and his colleagues developed a therapy for himself – one she believes prolonged his life by several years.

The cancer came back late this summer, she added, and he died Friday at the age of 68.

“We believe that his therapy helped him and, hopefully, will help others,” she said.

Steinman is survived by his wife Claudia, his mother Nettie, his siblings, his son Adam, his twin daughters Lesley and Alexis, and three grandchildren.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version erroneously said Steinman graduated from McGill in 1968.

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