It began with increasing clumsiness, tripping on the stairs, and by the time Stephen Hawking went home from college for Christmas break in 1963, his parents noticed he occasionally slurred his words. The shocking diagnosis came a few months later. The twenty-one-year old Cambridge University physics major had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS. Hawking was told he would not live to see his 25th birthday.
Despite average grades, his fellow high school students had recognized his brilliance and dubbed Hawking “Einstein”. He had chosen Cambridge because both parents had attended and he got a near perfect score on the entrance exam. The diagnosis and an approaching marriage to Jane Wilde combined to create focus, energy, and sense of urgency in his life. After completing his undergraduate work in physics and mathematics, Hawking received his PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics in March 1966, about the time he was supposed to have died.
After completing his doctoral work with a specialization in cosmology, the study of the origin of the universe, and in Einstein’s field of general relativity, Hawking joined the faculty at Cambridge. By the early 1970’s, his disability had progressed from requiring a cane, to crutches, to a wheelchair, and by then he could no longer lecture. As his physical condition deteriorated, his intellectual accomplishments increased. His research into black hole phenomena produced new information about the universe and he answered one of Albert Einstein’s questions regarding unified field theory.
In 1979, Hawking became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the distinguished professorship once held by Sir Isaac Newton. At that point, only family and close friends could understand his speech. Hawking resorted to computer software to aid him in oral and written communication and continued his research. In 1985, he was placed on life support after a severe bout of pneumonia. Jane refused to allow the doctors to take him off life support. Instead a permanent tracheostomy was inserted to help him wean off the ventilator and allow him to be fed through a tube. He was eventually able to leave the hospital but required round-the-clock nursing care.
Hawking remained in the Lucasian Professorship until 2009 when he became Director of Research at the Center for Theoretical Cosmology. He has authored 15 books and scientific papers, including A Brief History of Time, which was on the British Sunday Times best seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks and has sold more than ten million copies.
Today at age 75, fifty years after his anticipated death, Hawking continues his research and travels to speak at various scientific gatherings, despite the fact that he can only move his eyes and a few muscles in his face. In order to communicate, he uses a cheek muscle to activate a computer, which selects commonly used terms and phrases and makes them audible through a speech synthesizer. Hawking is a member of the British Royal Society, has won the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, and is ranked at No. 25 on the BBC’s poll of 100 Greatest Britons.
Hawking’s fellow high school students were right. He is the Einstein of his generation, and with an IQ among the ten highest in history, he is perhaps the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein. Although Hawking has never won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries on black holes, Brian Dickie, the research director at the Motor Neuron Disease Association, an organization that researches ALS and related motor neuron diseases, says, “In my opinion, Professor Hawking’s victory over his disease is no less deserving than his scientific research of the award of a Nobel prize.”
“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.” Stephen Hawking