The Grim Prognosis Doctors Initially Gave Stephen Hawking For His ALS

The famed scientist Stephen Hawking died on March 14, 2018, at the age of 76. The long life of the cosmologist included an exceptional body of work on black holes and the origins of the universe. Biography explains that in 1974, Hawking received attention in the scientific community when he proposed that matter isn't fully consumed by black holes. Rather, he proved to his peers that radiation can escape the strong gravitational forces. For his groundbreaking work, he became a fellow of the Royal Society and received the Albert Einstein award. With his newfound fame, he went on to write popular books including "A Brief History of Time" in 1988 and "The Grand Design" in 2010.

His unlikely prominence in pop culture led to pop culture fame and appearances on shows like "The Big Bang Theory” and "The Simpsons" (via History). But despite his illustrious career, his life was not without challenges. 

Stephen Hawking's Early Life and Diagnosis

Stephen Hawking was born in Oxford, England on January 8, 1942 — the anniversary of Galileo's death according to Biography. He was the eldest of four children and was born into an educated family. His mother attended Oxford University in the 1930s and his father was a medical researcher and graduate of Oxford. While he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and study medicine, Hawking would instead follow his budding passion for the stars.

In school, Hawking was recognized as smart, but he wasn't considered a genius by his teachers. Outside of class, however, he excelled in his hobbies, including board games and mathematics. Soon, he followed in his parents' footsteps by enrolling in the University of Oxford at age 17 where he studied cosmology. At this time, Hawking started noticing issues with his physical health. He would fall, trip, and slur his words on occasions, but for a while he turned a blind eye to the problem.

Eventually, the issue couldn't be ignored and at age 21, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's disease — a neurodegenerative disease that attacks the motor neurons (via Time). Doctors initially gave Hawking an estimate that he had only a handful of years to live.

Stephen Hawking's Unlikely Longevity

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) becomes progressively worse with time, causing the cells in the brain and spinal cord to erode until the sufferer can't speak, walk, or swallow, or even breathe (via Time). According to the ALS Association, the average life expectancy for people with the disease is a mere three years. And even though treatments like speech therapy and medications can help manage the symptoms, there is no cure.

Stephen Hawking was in the 5% of ALS patients who overcame the odds. Even within that 5%, most people live up to 20 years with the disease, while Hawking survived over 50 years after his diagnosis. Still, the disease had plenty of impact on his life. He used a wheelchair and a speaking program to communicate after a tracheotomy took his voice away, as per Biography. Much like his life's work, the scientist's unique longevity stands out, and to this day, scientists are unsure of how exactly Stephen Hawking, and the small number of other long-lived survivors, beat the odds.