It was a riveting story: Ralph Steinman won this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine. The Westport scientist was honored for discoveries about the immune system that led to new treatments for, and prevention of, cancer and infectious diseases.
Steinman used his discoveries to treat himself for pancreatic cancer. But he lost his 4-year battle on September 30 — 3 days before he was announced as the Nobel winner.
Posthumous Nobels are not allowed. But the Foundation determined this one had been awarded in good faith. The honor stood.
Yes, an intriguing — probably even made-for-TV movie — story. But in the swirl of publicity around Dr. Steinman the Nobel awardee, little was said about Ralph Steinman the husband, father and longtime resident.
Last weekend his twin daughters, Lesley and Alexis, talked about their dad.
He’d worked at Rockefeller since 1971, but he and his wife Claudia wanted to raise their family outside New York City. They moved first to Sleepy Hollow, but the schools weren’t good enough. Firm believers in public education, they heard about Westport from friends, investigated, and were sold — in large part because of the schools.
“It was the best of both worlds,” Lesley says. “He loved the beach, he could commute to New York, and we could get a great education.”
The Steinmans moved here in 1983: 2nd-graders Lesley and Alexis, and their 5th-grade brother Adam.
“Dad worked all the time,” Alexis says. “He’d take stacks of journals to the beach. Around the house he gardened, chopped firewood and barbecued. He relished being ‘in the country,’ but his life was work.”
A world renowned scientist does plenty of traveling. “He was away an insane amount,” Lesley says. “There were meetings all over the planet. But he never got to see any of the places.”
He spent years trying to convince skeptics that his dendritic cell immunology work had merit.
His world, Alexis says, “wasn’t Westport. It was the scientific community. That’s why he chilled out whenever he got back here.”
Steinman relished taking his children to to his Rockefeller lab. “There were pipettes, centrifuges, and mice that he would touch and make them pee. It was very cool,” Lesley laughs.
Steinman said he had no hobbies — though he skied and played tennis — and “he told all the kids we were way too multi-faceted to go into science,” Alexis says. She and her sister both live on the West Coast, and are involved in artistic endeavors. Adam has a law degree from Yale.
“It’s interesting: Dad taught us to be good scientists without explicitly couching it as ‘science,'” Lesley says.
“He taught us to be critical thinkers, to make decisions based on sound data, to collaborate and not compete, and to work hard. He never pressured us to go into the natural sciences, but he always encouraged us to be good scientists.”
When Steinman was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, he convinced doctors to harvest his dendritic cells, so he could grow his own and do his own therapy. “They don’t let many people take their own tumors out of the hospital and work on them,” Lesley notes.
“Luckily he had success. That, and chemotherapy, helped him live as long as he did.”
Also in 2007 Steinman won the Lasker Award — the “American Nobel.” He knew that might lead to a Nobel — which he hoped to get, because it would generate more support for his research — but when he did not win it in 2008 or 2009, Lesley says, “he just went back to work.”
He died this year without learning he’d won the Nobel Prize — though, Lesley says, “we like to think he knows he got it.”
In the days following his death, they’ve heard from hundreds of Steinman’s colleagues and former students. As often happens, his wife and children have learned a lot they never knew.
“He was a matchmaker in the lab!” Alexis says with surprise. “We found out about all these marriages he helped arrange, and all the kids that resulted.”
“We got a lot of emails from renowned scientists who came through his lab,” Lesley says. “They talked about how inspired they were by him. They said they carry his excitement with them, and now they use his lessons with their own students.”
His children also discovered “how proud he was of us,” says Alexis. “I work in costumes in L.A. I never knew he was so impressed with Lesley and my creativity, and that he knew how hard we work.”
At the same time, Alexis adds, “We told his colleagues and students how much he thought of them, because he always told us. But they didn’t know. I think that was how he kept all of us from being spoiled.”
While Steinman was a “father” to so many scientists — and was often away from home — Claudia did most of the child-rearing (while pursuing a full-time career in real estate).
“They complemented each other so well,” Lesley says. “They were very different, but very much in love. They were always so affectionate with each other.
“And he always said he would not have been as successful without her love and support.”