Jen Hutchens, Program Director
Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. At an early age, Hawking showed a passion for science and the sky. At age 21, while studying cosmology at the University of Cambridge, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Despite his debilitating illness, he has done ground-breaking work in physics and cosmology, and his several books have helped to make science accessible to everyone.
Hawking first began to notice problems with his physical health while he was at Oxford, on occasion he would trip and fall, or slur his speech, however 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 Hawking 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. Doctors informed him and his family he was in the early stages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease). In a very simple sense, the nerves that controlled his muscles were shutting down. Doctors gave him just two and a half years to live.
In a sense, Hawking's disease helped him become the noted scientist he is today. Before the diagnosis, Hawking hadn't always focused on his studies. "I was bored with life before my illness," he said. "There had not seemed to be anything worth doing." Following the sudden realization that he might not even live long enough to earn his Ph.D., Hawking poured himself into his work and research.
Hawking's ever-expanding career was accompanied, however, by his ever-worsening physical state. By the mid-1970s, the Hawking family had taken in one of Hawking's graduate students to help manage his care and work. He could still feed himself and get out of bed, but virtually everything else required assistance. In addition, his speech had become increasingly slurred, so that only those who knew him well could understand him. In 1985 he lost his voice for good following a tracheotomy. The resulting situation required the acclaimed physicist to require 24-hour nursing care.
It also put in peril Hawking's ability to do his work. The predicament caught the attention of a California computer programmer, who had developed a speaking program that could be directed by head or eye movement. The invention allowed Hawking to select words on a computer screen that were then passed through a speech synthesizer. At the time of its introduction, Hawking, who still had use of his fingers, selected his words with a handheld clicker. Today, with virtually all control of his body gone, Hawking directs the program through a cheek muscle attached to a sensor.
Through his perseverance, use of assistive technology, and accepting the help of care givers, Stephen Hawking is still around more than 51 years after his initial diagnosis. He has lived life to its fullest despite his disability. He is a true inspiration to me.