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Caius pays tribute to Professor Stephen Hawking, Fellow of Caius for over 52 years

  • 14 March 2018

This article pays tribute to Professor Stephen Hawking as a Fellow of Gonville & Caius, his academic home for almost all his working life. Other articles published by Cambridge University and by the Department for Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics focus in more detail on his ground-breaking research and his wider global role and reputation.

Stephen Hawking, Cambridge professor, theoretical physicist and the scientist who taught the modern world to look up and marvel at the universe, has died, aged 76.

Professor Hawking, known equally for his boundary-stretching research and for his extraordinary ability to inspire non-scientists to explore the complex mysteries of space and time, is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein.

Today, the world mourns the passing of a man who, transformed almost into a scientific phenomenon himself thanks to the technology he used to overcome the ever-worsening symptoms of motor neurone disease, shattered any notions of the limitations of disability.

Professor Hawking’s death has shaken the University of Cambridge, where he was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics for 20 years to 2009 and subsequently Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research, and Gonville & Caius College – his academic home and the place he described as “a constant thread running through my life”. The physicist became a Fellow of Caius in October 1965, two years after being given an initial medical diagnosis suggesting he had just two years to live.

With his entire 52-year career at Caius thus spent on borrowed time, he built a powerful bond with the College and its people. While admirers around the world celebrate Professor Hawking’s brilliant mind and ability to popularise the most complex scientific ideas, at Caius he will always be “Stephen” – the man whose wicked sense of humour enlivened High Table dinners and saw him spinning uproariously around Hall in his wheelchair to the strains of a waltz at a College party.

The Master of Caius, Professor Sir Alan Fersht, who first met Professor Hawking in 1965 while a student at the College, said: “Stephen’s loss is a great one for the college. Caius is Stephen – they have been intertwined for over 50 years.

“There is no doubt that Caius played a very important part in his life, from offering him his first opportunities as a Research Fellow, keeping him on when he needed support, and flying him back from a conference when he desperately needed medical help.

“Caius is very proud of having both the most famous biologist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Francis Crick, and the most famous physicist of that period - indeed the most famous scientist since Einstein - Stephen Hawking.”

Professor Hawking was elected to a Research Fellowship at Caius in recognition of his early work on black holes – the subject of the thesis for which he received his PhD the following year, in 1966. The award, he recalled at a 2015 celebration to mark 50 years as a Caius Fellow, “was a turning point in my life, as the College made sure I could continue my research, despite my increasing disability”.

The Election to an Official Fellowship on the grounds of “exceptional distinction in research” followed in 1969 – a position he held until 1977, the year he was promoted to a Professorship within the University and so became a Professorial Fellow at Caius.

Professor Hawking first arrived at Caius from neighbouring Trinity Hall, where he had studied for his PhD after gaining his first degree from Oxford. Even then, the College community was struck by the two features that would come to define his life: his extraordinary intellect and his worsening disability. Professor Fersht recalled: “I remember very vividly my first glimpse of Stephen. It was in 1965 when the Hall was out of use during the refurbishment of the kitchens and we all dined in a Portacabin in Tree Court nicknamed the Goldfish Bowl. Stephen was still able to walk, albeit with a hobble, in those days, and he already had such a reputation that we all knew about him. He was often accompanied by Jane [the couple married that year and divorced 26 years later], who brightened up our then all-male college.”

Caius Fellow Professor Tim Pedley had met Professor Hawking still earlier as a research student at Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 1963, and remembers the physicist’s real voice – famously subsequently replaced by his trademark American-accented synthesiser. “Stephen’s own voice was a rather cut-glass English one,” according to Professor Pedley.

As Professor Hawking’s condition worsened and his speech deteriorated over the years, close colleagues at Caius worked hard to continue to understand his words and ensure his continued full participation in College life. “By concentrating quite hard and trying to be sensitive to what he was trying to communicate, a few Fellows could interpret what he was saying,” Professor Pedley adds. “In College meetings, it was sometimes necessary for us to repeat what he said.”

The physicist’s contributions were more than worth the team effort required to communicate them: he is remembered both for his sharp yet often roguish wit and for his willingness to express forthright opinions on matters affecting the College – and more. In a debate over a new site for Caius Library, Professor Hawking left none in doubt of his opposition to a proposal to build on the Fellows’ Garden – a pretty enclave of lawns and flowerbeds. A sentimental preference for greenery was not the issue, however: he felt the garden was a wasted space and should be sold to provide funds for new Caius facilities.

An attempt by his sons’ school to confine the number of permitted A levels to three received similarly short shrift – and the number rose to four.

But determined as Professor Hawking was to ensure a diminishing voice never prevented his views being heard, his motor neurone disease began severely to restrict his mobility, threatening a potentially profound impact on his life and work. While the condition was irreversible, it was here that his College was able to step in and provide practical help. When the many stairs of the townhouse bought with Jane in the late 1960s proved unmanageable, the couple moved in 1975 to a Caius-owned property at 5 West Road, adapted by the College to permit lateral living and wheelchair use. There, the physicist was able to write his best-selling A Brief History of Time, while his three young children enjoyed the freedom of a large garden.

At a time before many institutions recognised the need to ensure accessibility, Caius also introduced ramps in its medieval Old Courts and a lift up to the dining Hall for Professor Hawking’s use. Any necessary changes were made, says Professor Pedley, “to enable him to continue to play a significant part in College life – attending Fellows’ meetings, dining in Hall, entertaining friends and colleagues. And of course, as a result of the need to make the public rooms accessible to Stephen, the College is well-adapted for other disabled members, present or future.”

Professor Hawking’s participation in the social life of Caius left an indelible imprint. The host of famously entertaining parties while at West Road, he remained a regular diner at High Table for as long as his health permitted – often causing (mainly) good-humoured exasperation in the College kitchens with his habit of booking late and inviting several guests. Accompanied at table by his carers, and gazed upon by awed diners, he enjoyed sipping champagne, spending the morning after his party to mark 50 years as a Fellow nursing a hangover.

A dinner in Hall marking his 75th birthday in 2017 was another memorable occasion, as Professor Hawking watched the premiere of a beautiful space-themed choral work, Beyond the Night Sky, commissioned by the College from Caian composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad and performed by the Gonville & Caius College Choir.

At a Caius celebration called Bishop Shaxton’s Solace - funded from a bequest from a sixteenth century cleric - dinner was traditionally followed by dancing to music from a small orchestra. During one event in the 1980s, Professor Pedley recalls, “Stephen got his new wheelchair on the dancefloor, and somebody said ‘Can you do a waltz?’ He put it on “go and turn” and he went whizzing around in circles - he enjoyed that. So his sense of humour was not just a donnish, academic one: it was a sense of the absurd.”

The bond between Professor Hawking and his College was perhaps revealed most strongly, however, in 1985, when the scientist became dangerously ill with pneumonia while attending a conference at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva. Doctors gave Jane the option of turning off his life support, but she refused and he was instead flown home on a specially-chartered flight funded by Caius to undergo treatment – including a tracheotomy – in Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge. There, he was visited by colleagues from Caius and the mathematics department, who drew up a rota and took it in turns to read to him. “I read The Pickwick Papers,” recalls Professor Pedley. “Stephen had a lovely sense of humour and you could tell in those days he was laughing. But he was in a pretty bad way.”

Recovering after the crisis, and with a new speech synthesiser he could then operate by hand using a switch, he was able to continue his work despite having, as he said, “lost my voice to save my life”. He finished A Brief History of Time – published in 1988 to stratospheric success and the sale of some 20 million copies globally, and pursued his research on black holes and the Big Bang.

However, the strain of his public profile took its toll on the Hawking marriage and the couple divorced in 1995, after which the physicist married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, divorcing for a second time in 2006.

In his later years, Professor Hawking ensured the College that had supported his work and helped save his life benefited from his status as “rock star” scientist, using his fame to help encourage benefactors to donate to Caius. In February 2005, he presided over the ceremony to start construction of the Stephen Hawking Building, which provides outstanding accommodation for 75 Caius students and eight Fellows. Built at a cost of over £10 million, and occupying the site of the Hawkings’ West Road Victorian villa, the building was entirely funded by donations from over 2,000 Caians and friends of the College. Some of the donors to this ambitious project went on to become the first members of The Stephen Hawking Circle of benefactors, in recognition of their generosity, each having given over £50,000 to the College.

From 2008, Professor Hawking hosted an exclusive dinner each year for 12 members of this Circle and their partners, delivering an illustrated talk about his life’s work. Caius Development Director James Howell remembers: “In his familiar electronic voice, he would explain how, in collaboration with Roger Penrose, he had solved most of the outstanding problems in General Relativity and then moved on to Quantum Theory. The Eureka moment in his study of black holes, he revealed, was ‘as good as sex, but lasting much longer’.” After dinner, each benefactor was presented with a special memento of the evening: a copy of A Brief History of Time personally signed with his thumb-print. 

Students were not forgotten: he made a speech surrounded by Caius undergraduates to announce the theme of the 2014 Caius May Ball – what else but A Brief History of Time? – and was always happy to pose for photographs with students and with kitchen and waiting staff when dining in Hall.

Professor Hawking paid tribute to his Caian identity perhaps most strikingly at the 2015 party marking his 50 years as a Fellow, when he raised concerns that others might not gain the same support he had received. He said: “Caius gave me a home literally and figuratively, and is a constant thread running through my life. I wonder whether a young ambitious academic, with my kind of severe condition now, would find the same generosity and support in much of higher education. Even with the best goodwill, would the money still be there? I fear not.”

While he was willing to use his fame to highlight the needs of disabled people, however, the physicist never publicly expressed negativity about his condition. Writing on his website, he pointed out that despite having motor neurone disease for almost his entire adult life, “it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work”.

Professor Stephen Hawking, the man who without independent mobility or speech captured the world with some of the most complex concepts in all physics, was an extraordinarily unlikely phenomenon, whose very existence symbolised the need to take nothing for granted and to maintain hope, even against the odds. “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” he urged in a speech at his 70th birthday party.

At Caius, where he was special but also one of us, he provided that inspiration too. He will be greatly missed.

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