Speaking at the event that celebrated his 50th year as a fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius college, Stephen Hawking expressed his doubts whether a young student of similar talents, as well as disabilities, would receive the kind of support he had. The renowned physicist, now 73 years old, has been living for the past decades with a devastating motor neurone disease that doctors believed would kill him while he was still in his early 20s. His determination to live on despite being confined to a wheel chair all his life is inspiring, but it’s unlikely he could have survived to this day were it not for his fellows and support at Caius College; nevermind his outstanding achievements in physics.
“That fellowship was a turning point in my life, as the college made sure I could continue my research, despite my increasing disability.”
Part of the college’s West Road facilities were modified to house Hawkings and his family. It’s here that he wrote his famous book, “A Brief History of Time.” In one particularly dramatic event, Hawking fell so gravely ill in Switzerland in the 1980s that doctors asked his wife, Jane, whether life support should be terminated. The college charted a plane to fly him back in the UK, while Hawking’s student and colleagues stood by his bedside during the whole ordeal.
“I was then in Addenbrookes Hospital for quite a time, unable to speak or hold anything,” he said, as reported by The Guardian.
“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.”
“Caius gave me a home, literally and figuratively, and is a constant thread running through my life.”
But Hawking has serious doubts similar support would be shown to a fellow of his condition today.
“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.”
Though he didn’t elaborate, we can only speculate Hawking was referring to recent cuts in science budgets and grants in the UK. College master, Alan Fersht, assured both the attendees and Hawking himself that these doubts aren’t well founded. But that’s speaking for his college only, not for the whole higher education system in the UK.
“Stephen questioned whether a young academic in his condition would get the same level of support today.
“For Caius at least, I can say emphatically ‘yes’. The fellowship is a family, just as our students, our staff and our alumni are all parts of the Caian family.”
He continued: “In 1965, none of us dreamt that we would be here, 50 years on, to celebrate this day. I say none, but I suspect I actually mean ‘all, but one’.”