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Famous people with disabilities - Stephen Hawking
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Famous people with disabilities - Stephen Hawking

Professor Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) was an author, cosmologist and theoretical physicist, widely regarded as one of the best physicists of all time. He is perhaps best known for his magnum opus A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988), which provided groundbreaking research into the black holes of space.

Born in Oxford, England, Hawking studied Physics at University College, Oxford, followed by a Ph.D. at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He was then appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a role he would retain for thirty years. The role is the most famous academic chair in the world and was previously held by his idol, Sir Isaac Newton.

Whilst his academic genius was enough to catapult Hawking’s fame worldwide, it is his illness which consumed most of his adult life for which he is also known. Whilst 21, Hawking developed an incurable degenerative neuromuscular disease (a form of motor neurone disease) which affected his brain and spinal cord. Originally, doctors gave him two years to live.

Over the years, the disease slowly began to paralyse him. As his speech deteriorated, he started to communicate firstly with an interpreter, then by lifting his eyebrows. With technological advances, he began communicating with a computer; firstly by hand then with a cheek muscle. Using this one muscle, he was able to write emails, books and perform speeches.

Despite the disease encompassing such a huge part of his life, he preferred to refer to himself as, "a scientist first, popular science writer second, and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being”. Although he did participate in fundraising for those with a disability, Hawking received complaints from some critics that he was not enough of a disabled advocate.

Whilst Hawking decided to not define himself by his illness, he embraced his fame with fun. He appeared on The Simpsons, Star Trek and was a regular on The Big Bang Theory. He also contributed to a Pink Floyd album. Until his later years, he continued to travel the world delivering lectures and attending science events.

Hawking identified as a humanist and an atheist. He frequently warned the world of human-caused catastrophes, such as nuclear disasters or an environmental crisis. He often spoke about the importance of humans learning how to be more united with each other and be more mindful of environmental damage to the Earth caused by climate change.

In the early 2010s he began to frequently fall ill, eventually having to rely on the use of a ventilator. He died peacefully at home in 2018, aged 76, leaving behind three children and two ex-wives. His old age meant he outlived early doctors’ death predictions by over fifty years. His ashes are interred at Westminster Cathedral, in between Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton.

During his lifetime he received many honours including; Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), Companion of Honour, the Copley Medal and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also received an unprecedented thirteen honorary degrees.