Artefact of the month – a microscope

Every month one or several of the objects held at the Nobel Museum’s collections will feature here as Artefact of the month.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011 was awarded in one half to Ralph Steinman ”for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity”.

Ralph Steinman was awarded the Nobel Prize posthumously, something very rare and virtually impossible. The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet could not reach him after their vote in the morning of Monday, October 3rd 2011 and thus announced their decision 11.45 in Stockholm without having talked to him. The same day at 14.30 the information that he had passed away Friday, September 30th reached The Nobel Assembly. The sad and unexpected news had to be discussed at a special meeting where it was decided that ”Ralph Steinman Remains Nobel Laureate” 

Every year the Nobel Museum asks the new Nobel Laureates to donate objects to the museum collection, but Ralph Steinman of course could not be asked. But unexpected things do happen!

In March 2017, the Nobel Museum was contacted by Maggi Witmer Pack who works as Senior Research Associate at the Laboratory of Molecular Immunology at Rockefeller University in New York. In a letter titled ”Items from Ralph Steinman’s lab” she writes:

”I started working for Ralph in 1976. I was his technician in the early days, as he worked out the isolation, purification and functional power of dendritic cells. I did my PhD with him and continued in his busy and exciting lab until his death in 2011.

I have kept the microscope that Ralph used (several times a day!) to check the cultures of mixed leukocyte reactions. Ralph and I spent many months setting up these experiments and the paper describing the exciting results was one of three key publications sited by the Nobel Committee, Steinman RM, Witmer MD. Lymphoid dendritic cells are potent stimulators of the primary mixed leukocyte reaction in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1978;75:5132-5136.

It was the mixed leukocyte reaction which demonstrated that dendritic cells are the cells that initiate T cell immune responses. Over the course of the 4 or 5 days that the cultures incubated, Ralph would place the 24-well culture plate on the stage of the microscope and excitedly watch the clusters grow as the T cells proliferated under the stimulating power of dendritic cells.

These pictures show the clusters made of dendritic cells enveloping and stimulating T cells. The top left picture depicts what Ralph saw in the culture wells. The framed panel also contains pictures of DC/T cell clusters taken with a scanning electron microscope and under conditions where the proliferation of the T cells can be seen. …”

On July 5th 2017, Maggi Pack delivered the microscope, that Ralph Steinman had used and that she has looked after since his death, to the Nobel Museum.

We are honored and grateful for this donation and we want to thank both her and the Rockefeller University in New York for this to us very valuable gift.

Margrit Wettstein, Ph.D., Senior Curator, Collection Manager


Nobelmuseet Stortorget 2, Gamla Stan, Box 2245, 103 16 Stockholm
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Executive Editor: Olov Amelin

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