Professor Hawking pays tribute to Caius after 50 years as a Fellow
- 30 May 2015
Professor Stephen Hawking has spoken movingly of his deep gratitude for the support given to him for half a century by Gonville & Caius.
The physicist and Caius Fellow described Caius as “a constant thread running through my life”. “Caius gave me a home, literally and figuratively,” he said.
Speaking at a dinner held to celebrate the 50-year anniversary and to thank major college benefactors, Prof Hawking, 73, said election to a Fellowship in 1965 - when he was already diagnosed with motor neurone disease and had been given two years to live - had provided “a turning point” in his life. “The college made sure I could continue my research, despite my increasing disability.”
He pointed to adaptations made by Caius to its beautiful Medieval buildings, allowing him to use his wheelchair. The college also adapted a house in West Road, Cambridge for Prof Hawking and his family, providing the home in which he wrote his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time, while his children played in the grounds.
Caius also paid for an emergency flight back to Cambridge for life-saving treatment when he became dangerously ill with pneumonia while at a conference in Geneva, Prof Hawking said. Doctors had asked his then-wife, Jane, whether his life-support should be turned off – an episode featured in the film of Prof Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything.
While he recovered, his students organised a rota to keep his mind occupied by reading to him and making him laugh, he said. Later, the college organised a 60th birthday party for him, featuring a Marilyn Monroe lookalike singing Happy Birthday.
Prof Hawking also questioned whether the same generosity and support shown by Caius would be available elsewhere in higher education today for a young, ambitious academic with disabilities similar to his own. “Even with the best goodwill, would the money still be there? I fear not.”
The Master of Caius, Professor Sir Alan Fersht, said he was proud of the support Caius had given Professor Hawking, and praised his work and “wicked sense of humour”. The college was “a family” and would offer just the same support to a young academic with disabilities today, he said.
Prof Fersht said: "In 1965, we were told that Stephen... might not live long enough even to complete his research. But, amazingly, he has lived for 50 years, and has not merely survived but has gone on to be the most famous scientist in the world - acclaimed for his brilliant research, for his best-selling books about space, time and the cosmos and, above all, for his astonishing triumph over adversity."
Guests at the dinner, which followed a concert in the college chapel, included Caius alumni Lord Goldsmith, former attorney general; the Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP; Lord Justice Christopher Clarke, lead counsel to the Bloody Sunday inquiry; Sir Marcus Setchell, the Queen’s gynaecologist who delivered Prince George; former Channel Five head David Elstein and the historian Professor Andrew Roberts. Other prominent benefactors attending included Mrs Regina Leung and Ms Chung Yan Leung (2011), wife and daughter of the chief executive of Hong Kong; Dr Alice Cheng and Dr Yvonne Lui.
Cambridge graduate Carol Vorderman, whose daughter studied at Caius, also attended the event.
The Master thanked the guests, predominantly members of the Stephen Hawking Circle of benefactors, for their generosity in donating to Caius, saying the money would play a crucial part in ensuring the college can provide the same educational benefits to future generations of Caians as current students enjoy today. A new Stephen Hawking Lectureship fund will support a College Lecturer in mathematics or physics at Caius, who will be known as the Stephen Hawking Lecturer.
The full text of Professor Hawking's speech is below.
A film of the speech is available on the Gonville & Caius YouTube channel.
An audio version is available via SoundCloud here.
For more information, contact Lucy Ward, Gonville & Caius Communications Officer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full text of the speech:
Can you hear me?
I’m delighted to welcome you to the college this evening. It’s wonderful to see you all, thank you for coming to my party. I feel grateful to this College for giving me a place to live and work half a century ago, and for supporting me ever since.
Our celebration tonight has a particular numerical significance that appeals to me. For me, this event celebrates 50 years as a fellow of Caius. I’ll come back to that. For the college, tonight’s dinner is our way of thanking you for your generosity in supporting our world-class education and research. Most of you have donated an astonishing one thousand pounds for each of my years as a Fellow, and are members of my Circle here at Caius. Your generosity powers our learning: we thank every one of you for that gift of academic energy.
For myself, Gonville & Caius has been my academic home for almost all my time in Cambridge, and we have grown even closer as time has gone on. I was surprised and very pleased to be elected to a fellowship here back in 1965, not least as Caius fellowships were some of the best paid at the time! That fellowship was a turning point in my life, as the college made sure I could continue my research, despite my increasing disability.
When I became ill with pneumonia while in Switzerland in the mid-eighties, doctors asked my wife Jane, if my life support should be terminated. It was Caius that flew me back to Cambridge in a chartered plane, for treatment that saved my life. I was then in Addenbrooke’s for quite a time, unable to speak or hold anything. And during that time my students participated in a rota to keep my mind occupied by reading to me, I was even able to laugh at the funny bits.
A flat was adapted for me and my family, in West Road, now the site of the student accommodation building that happens to have my name, and my children had the grounds of Harvey court to play in. I wrote a Brief History of Time there. The college installed a lift in its beautiful mediaeval buildings, and they were adapted for the twenty-first century technology, I need to get around and work. And let’s not forget the students here: they even let me announce their May Ball theme, a brief history of time, last year. I went to the May Ball, and enjoyed it greatly.
And I well remember the party held in this Hall to celebrate my 60th birthday, when the highlight for me was the arrival of a Marilyn Monroe look alike, to sing Happy Birthday.
So, 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.
That brings us back to you, our benefactors, many of you members of the Stephen Hawking Circle, to whom all at this college would like to express our gratitude. We are privileged to be provided with such opportunities and resources here at Caius, thanks to people like you, who know how much education and academic endeavour matters.
The other day, I mused that in a parallel universe, Zayn from One Direction, might not have left the band. In yet another universe, there might be many colleges like this one. But for now, we’re here in this one, and there’s just one Gonville and Caius. Let us cherish it, for the next 50 years and beyond.
Thank you for listening.