Born January 8, 1942 in Oxford, England. The eldest of Frank and Isobel Hawking’s four children, Stephen William Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo, which has long been a source of pride for the noted physicist. Stephen was born into a family of thinkers. At a time when few women thought of going to college, the Scottish born Isobel earned her way into Oxford University in the 1930s, making her one of the college’s first female students. Frank Hawking, another Oxford graduate, was a respected medical researcher with a specialty in tropical diseases.
Stephen Hawking’s birth came at an inopportune time for his parents, who didn’t have much money. The political climate was also tense, as England was dealing with World War II and the onslaught of German bombs. In an effort to seek a safer place to have their first child, Frank moved his pregnant wife from their London home to Oxford. The Hawkings would go on to have two other children, Mary (1943) and Philippa (1947). A second son, Edward, was adopted in 1956.
The Hawkings, as one close family friend described them, were an “eccentric” bunch. Dinner was often eaten in silence, each of the Hawkings intently reading a book. The family car was an old London taxi and their home in St. Albans was a three-story fixer-upper that never quite got fixed. The Hawkings also kept bees in the basement, and made fireworks in the greenhouse.
In 1950, Stephen’s father took work as the head of the Division of Parasitology at the National Institute of Medical Research, and spent the winter months in Africa doing research. He wanted his oldest child to go into medicine, but from an early age Stephen showed a passion for science and the sky. That was evident to his mother who, along with her children, often stretched out in the backyard on summer evenings to stare up at the stars. “Stephen always had a strong sense of wonder,” she remembered. “And I could see that the stars would draw him.”
Early in his academic life Stephen, while recognized as bright, was not an exceptional student. At one point in high school, his mother recalled, he was third from the bottom of his class. Instead, Stephen turned his mind loose on pursuits outside of school. He loved board games, and with a few close friends created new games of their own. At the age of 16 Stephen, along with several other buddies, constructed a computer out of recycled parts for solving rudimentary mathematical equations.
He was also on the go a lot. “Always on the move,” said a family friend. “Hardly ever still.” With his sister Mary, Stephen, who loved to climb, devised different entry routes into the family home. He remained active even after he entered Oxford University at the age of 17. He loved to dance, and also took an interest in rowing, becoming one of the Oxford rowing team’s coxswain.
To his father’s chagrin, Hawking finally said no to medicine, instead expressing a desire to study mathematics. But since Oxford didn’t offer a mathematics degree, Hawking gravitated toward physics and, more specifically, cosmology
By his own account, Hawking didn’t put much time into his studies. He would later calculate that he averaged about an hour a day focusing on school. And yet, he didn’t really have to do much more than that. In 1962, he graduated with honors and moved on to Cambridge University for a Ph.D. in cosmology.
While Stephen first began to notice problems with his physical health at Oxford—on occasion he would trip and fall, or slur his speech— he didn’t look into the problem until 1963, during his first year at Cambridge. For the most part, Hawking had kept these minor symptoms to himself. But when his father took notice of the condition, he sent Stephen to see a doctor. For the next two weeks, the 21-year-old college student made his home at a medical clinic, where he underwent a series of tests.
“They took a muscle sample from my arm, stuck electrodes into me, and injected some radio opaque fluid into my spine, and watched it going up and down with x-rays, as they tilted the bed,” he said. “After all that, they didn’t tell me what I had, except that it was not multiple sclerosis, and that I was an a-typical case.”
Eventually, however, doctors did inform the Hawkings about what was ailing their son: he was in the early stages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). In a very simple sense, the nerves that controled his muscles were shutting down. Doctors gave him two-and-half years to live.
It was devastating news for Stephen and his family. A few events, however, prevented him from becoming completely despondent. The first of these came while Hawking was still in the hospital. There, he shared a room with a boy suffering from leukemia. Relative to what his roommate was going through, Stephen reflected later, his situation seemed more tolerable. Not long after he was released from the hospital, Hawking had a dream he was going to be executed. He said this dream made him realize that there were still things to do with his life.
But the most significant change in his life was the fact that he was in love. At a New Year’s part in 1963, shortly before he had been diagnosed with ALS, Stephen Hawking met a young languages undergraduate named Jane Wilde. They were married in 1965.