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Stephen Hawking

Professor Stephen Hawking has been described as a genius and the world's most famous scientist. His book "A Brief History of Time" became an international best seller. Hawking has won a huge number of awards, medals and honours for his work on laws that govern the universe. This includes 12 honorary degrees, the CBE, and a Companion of Honour (more prestigous than a knighthood). He is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in England. This is a prestigous position once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He was also the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society.

At the age of 21, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). A first year graduate student at the time, Hawking was given two years to live. He deteriorated physically and is said to have become depressed. The diagnosis was made not long after he met Jane Wilde, who was later to become his first wife. Jane says of the period about a year after his diagnosis "his personality was overshadowed by a deep depression" and "this revealed itself in a harsh black cynicism" ([1], p. 49)

Years later, in 1976, his mood plummeted again. He had been hospitalised after becoming critically ill. Recovering at home, "he sat silently in his chair, resting his head on his hand, in the same melancholy posture he had first adopted in the 1960s. He did not speak." ([1], p. 302). As soon as he was able, Hawking returned to his hectic schedule. However, according to Jane Hawking, "at home his spirits were alarmingly low. The cheerful grin had evaporated completely, to be replaced by a mournful sadness expressed in those beautiful, eloquent eyes. He spoke only to voice his demands" ([1], p. 305-306). Later while on a family holiday, Hawking's throat repeatedly went into spasms. This caused him to choke and prevented him from eating.

Stephen subsided into a depressed lethargy; he seemed to build a tragically impregnable wall around himself and installed cannons on its battlements to fend off intruders, however hard they tried to reach out to him in his lofty isolation. From the fortress of his suffering he communicated only to express his needs in a morbid game of 'Simon says'.

Thus, it would seem that like others who suffer from illness, disability or pain, Stephen Hawking may have experienced bouts of depression during his life. Despite this, his achievements are remarkable. He has survived a frightening illness which he was told would kill him within two years. He relies on a computer to speak, a wheelchair to move and others around him for his basic personal care. None of his handicaps has stopped him from becoming a brilliant scientist and one of the world's greatest scientific communicators.


  • [1] Hawking J. Music to move the stars: A life with Stephen. MacMillan: London, 1999.