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 groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology, and his several books have helped to make science accessible to everyone. Part of his life story was depicted in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything.
Early Life and Background
The eldest of Frank and Isobel Hawking's four children, Stephen William Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo—long a source of pride for the noted physicist—on January 8, 1942. He was born in Oxford, England, into a family of thinkers. His Scottish mother had earned her way into Oxford University in the 1930s—a time when few women were able to go to college. His father, another Oxford graduate, was a respected medical researcher with a specialty in tropical diseases.
Stephen Hawking's birth came at an inopportune time for his parents, who didn't have much money. The political climate was also tense, as England was dealing with World War II and the onslaught of German bombs. In an effort to seek a safer place, Isobel returned to Oxford to have the couple's first child. The Hawkings would go on to have two other children, Mary (1943) and Philippa (1947). And their second son, Edward, was adopted in 1956.
The Hawkings, as one close family friend described them, were an "eccentric" bunch. Dinner was often eaten in silence, each of the Hawkings intently reading a book. The family car was an old London taxi, and their home in St. Albans was a three-story fixer-upper that never quite got fixed. The Hawkings also housed bees in the basement and produced fireworks in the greenhouse.
In 1950, Hawking's father took work to manage the Division of Parasitology at the National Institute of Medical Research, and spent the winter months in Africa doing research. He wanted his eldest child to go into medicine, but at an early age, Hawking showed a passion for science and the sky. That was evident to his mother, who, along with her children, often stretched out in the backyard on summer evenings to stare up at the stars. "Stephen always had a strong sense of wonder," she remembered. "And I could see that the stars would draw him."
Early in his academic life, Hawking, while recognized as bright, was not an exceptional student. During his first year at St. Albans School, he was third from the bottom of his class. But Hawking focused on pursuits outside of school; he loved board games, and he and a few close friends created new games of their own. During his teens, Hawking, along with several friends, constructed a computer out of recycled parts for solving rudimentary mathematical equations.
Hawking was also frequently on the go. With his sister Mary, Hawking, who loved to climb, devised different entry routes into the family home. He remained active even after he entered University College at Oxford University at the age of 17. He loved to dance and also took an interest in rowing, becoming a team coxswain.
Hawking expressed a desire to study mathematics, but since Oxford didn't offer a degree in that specialty, Hawking gravitated toward physics and, more specifically, cosmology.
By his own account, Hawking didn't put much time into his studies. He would later calculate that he averaged about an hour a day focusing on school. And yet he didn't really have to do much more than that. In 1962, he graduated with honors in natural science and went on to attend Trinity Hall at Cambridge University for a PhD in cosmology.