Insights On The Disease That Incapacitated Stephen Hawking, His Family Life and Death

Success has no limitation, as Stephen Hawking, the British Physicist, and Cosmologist proved. Although physically challenged, he inspired many lives by carving a niche for himself in the field of science with his intelligence and discoveries. He also had a career as an author of notable science books such as A Brief History of Time, one of the most famous scientific works of all time.

Even as he battled with the challenges of his condition and an ever-increasing scientific influence, he also nurtured a family life. He married twice and was father to three children. Despite his imperfections, they all loved him and celebrated his legacy, even until his death.

Hawking was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in 1963

Stephen Hawking was a bright young man with a lot of life ahead of him when he got diagnosed with MND or, as otherwise known, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in 1963 at 21. At the time, he had been experiencing increasing clumsiness in his last year at Oxford University and a growing slurring of his speech.

The diagnosis came after the problem worsened, forcing his family to seek medical advice. Following the diagnosis, doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years. As the 60s went by, Stephen’s physical abilities waned. He needed crutches, and he was unable to deliver lectures regularly.

However, being an incredibly smart man, and one with a robust support system, for every new deterioration, he found compensation. When he lost his ability to write, Stephen Hawking developed visual replacement, such as seeing equations as geometry. His ability to do so drew comparisons by his colleagues with Mozart, who famously composed symphonies in his head.

The Physicist Struggled with Accepting Help from Others

While the acclaimed scientist did have a support system ready to cater to his challenges, he was not always willing to accept the help. By the 70s, he had beaten the initial prognosis for the disease, but his physical abilities did not improve. By the 70s, he needed a wheelchair to move around, but it required coaxing from colleagues and his family to get him to use one.

For Stephen Hawking, his physiological limitations needed not to define him nor affect his value in the eyes of others. He notably wanted to be known as a scientist first, a popular science writer, and a normal human being, in that order.

This behaviour often drew conflict with others and alienated him from some. Still, with an increasing lack of choice, he accepted them. His first wheelchair was a standard motorized model, and he used several of them over his lifetime. Once he began using the chairs, they became part of his identity. One of them, a BEC Mobility chair he used circa 1988 to early 90s, sold for £296,750 in November 2018.

He Depended on Technology A Lot Towards the End of His Life

The chairs were just one of many technological innovations Stephen Hawking required to go about his work. By the late 70s, his speech had deteriorated enough that he could not communicate without help to his family and close friends. For others, he employed someone who translated his speech into intelligible form.

The remnant of his speech capabilities left in the middle of 1985 after he contracted pneumonia at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Due to his condition, the illness was life-threatening, and it took a tracheotomy to save his life.

During his recuperating period, he needed several nurses on three shifts to provide support. One of them was Elaine Mason, who later became his second wife. Once he felt better and returned to regular life, Stephen Hawking crudely communicated via spelling cards with his eyebrows until 1986.

In the year, he received a computer program, Equalizer, designed by Walter Woltosz that allowed him to communicate via 2500-3000 select phrases. The program initially ran on a desktop computer before a smaller computer, built by Elaine’s husband at the time, David Mason, was adapted to his wheelchair.

To speak, he initially activated a switch with his hand and was able to produce 15 words a minute. However, as he lost the ability to use his hand, control of the program switched to the movements of his cheek muscles, reducing his speed to one word a minute. The inefficiency of the system led to the development of an adaptive word predictor by the London startup, SwiftKey, known for its smartphone keyboards.

He Spent His Last Years In and Out of Hospitals

Unfortunately, while Stephen Hawking routinely defied his prognosis, things did not necessarily improve. By 2009, he had lost independent control of his wheelchair. Despite numerous attempts by technological companies and Swiftkey to create a system that controlled his chair by his chain, it failed.

By this time, Stephen was no longer able to move his neck with the only recognizable movements sporadic and jumpy. As a result, all possible solutions proved ineffective. At this time, he also suffered from increased breathing difficulties. He often required the use of a ventilator, leading to routine hospitalizations.

However, even as the legendary scientist’s health worsened, he grew in status as an advocate for the rights and respect for disabled people. Hawking eventually became a role model for disabled people globally, having formerly shirked interest in the role.

From the 90s, he began participating in fundraising activities and gave lectures on the subject. He signed the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, encouraging governments to work on the prevention of disability and protect the rights of the disabled.

Hawking received the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize from the American Physical Society for his work. He narrated the 2012 Summer Paralympics opening ceremony in London, in August 2012. Two years after, Hawking participated in the viral Ice Bucket Challenge that raised donations for ALS/MND research. He did not, however, have ice poured on him as his children did it on his behalf.

Stephen Hawking Met His First Wife a Year Before His Diagnosis

Stephen Hawking
image source

While he was still an undergraduate, Stephen Hawking met his now ex-wife, Jane Wilde, at a 1962 New Year’s party. They met less than a year before he got diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Despite being aware of the challenges that laid ahead and his possible early death, they got engaged in October 1964.

About a year after, on July 14, 1965, they got married in St Albans, their shared hometown. The small ceremony had the couple’s closest friends and family in attendance. Afterwards, they lived inside Cambridge, but Jane also lived in London, where she earned a degree from Westfield College.

Within the first 15 years as a couple, they gave birth to three children – their first, Robert, born in May 1967, Lucy, in November 1969, and Timothy in April 1979. During their early years together, Jane Wilde handled every responsibility in their home. It was the norm of the Hawking family until 1974 when a position at California Institute of Technology afforded them the chance to recruit a live-in student to care for Stephen.

Despite his wife developing a romantic arrangement that involved the organist Jonathan Hellyer Jones, Stephen and Jane Wilde remained together until 1990. His increasing medical needs and the burden of his global celebrity took a strain on the family.

While their bond and family struggled, Stephen grew close to one of his nurses, Elaine Mason. Eventually, in February 1990, after 25 years of marriage and three children, Hawking told Jane he was leaving for a relationship with Mason. He subsequently left their home, completing their divorce five years later in 1995.

His Second Marriage Drew Allegations of Abuse

Stephen Hawking
image source

After completing his divorce from Jane Wilde in early 1995, Hawking married Elaine Mason in September of the same year. Following their wedding, he proudly declared that he had married the woman he loves. News of the divorce and a memoir from Jane published in 1999 sparked a series of controversies about the scientist’s personal life.

In addition to the circumstances that led to the divorce, Stephen Hawking’s family members felt alienated from the scientist. Over five years in the early 2000s, rumours of possible abuse began to swirl, sparking an investigation by the police. However, the case was closed after Hawking refused to make a complaint. By 2006, Stephen Hawking and Elaine Mason quietly parted ways, with zero shared children.

Stephen Hawking Reunited with Jane until the End of his Life

After his marriage to Elaine ended, Stephen returned into the arms of Jane and his children. Their first daughter, Catherine Lucy, became an English journalist, novelist, and educator. She married Alex Mackenzie Smith and gave birth to a son, William Smith.

Timothy, the couple’s last child, attended the University of Birmingham and the University of Exeter. He is a marketer who works at LEGO as a loyalty executive. Robert Hawking initially had a career as a physicist, following in his father’s footsteps but later transitioned to a career as a software engineer for Microsoft after studying at the University of Oxford.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking with his ex-wife, Jane, and their two children, Lucy and Timothy: image source

The reunion brought much-needed happiness in the twilight of the scientist’s life. According to Jane’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, which she updated after the reunion, the family returned to a happier time, like their early years together. The film The Theory of Everything, about the updated version of the Stephen-Jane Hawking story, was made in 2014.

Stephen Hawking Died At the Age of 76

The initial diagnosis of Stephen Hawking’s illness determined he had two years to live at the age of 21. However, the scientist went on to live for an additional 55 years until the age of 76 after plenty of accomplishments. He died peacefully on March 14, 2018, in his Cambridge home, surrounded by his family.

His death attracted eulogies from personalities in all walks of life, across politics, entertainment, and science. A private funeral took place on March 31, 2018, at Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge with high-profile guests like Benedict Cumberbatch, Felicity Jones, and Eddie Redmayne in attendance.

Following his funeral, his body was cremated, and he is interred in Abbey’s nave. The UK government held a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey on June 15, 2018. Other recognitions he received after his death include –

  • The Royal Mint issued a commemorative 50 pence coin in March 2019
  • His memorial stone is between the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin
  • The Bekenstein – Hawking entropy equation inscription on his memorial stone
  • Stephen’s words, set to music by Vangelis, a Greek composer, were beamed into space
  • The Gonville and Caius College flag flew at half-mast
Stephen Hawking
Stephen’s memorial stone: image source

Since he passed, Stephen Hawking’s work has continued to attract attention. In November 2018, an auction of 22 personal possessions, his doctoral thesis, and wheelchair fetched £1.8 million at an auction. His last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, was published in October 2018 and sold millions of copies.


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