The life story of scientist Stephen Hawking seems like a natural for a “based on a true story” movie: A brilliant man afflicted with a terrible disease rises above its debilitating effects to achieve greatness, all the while supported by a devoted woman who loves and cares for him. The story has struggle, it has heartbreak, it has success — and, most of all, it communicates the firm belief that love can overcome the worst of circumstances. It’s this last aspect of Hawking’s story that the new film The Theory of Everything emphasizes, focusing primarily on the early relationship of the great scientist with his first wife Jane.
This focus isn’t really much of a surprise; a previous version of Hawking’s story, the BBC film Hawking from 2004, trod the same path. The movies have always loved lovers, even when in real life the romance is not a fairy tale that ends happily ever after. In the case of the Hawkings, it didn’t; the couple separated in 1990 and divorced in 1995. However, before that came to pass, both on film and in real life, the Hawkings’ union could be said to have had an overwhelmingly positive and even inspiring influence on the course of their lives.
Stephen Hawking met his future wife shortly after he began his degree program at Cambridge. Having been raised in a sphere of intellectual curiosity (his father was a medical researcher and his mother studied economics), Hawking showed an early aptitude for math and science, and he eventually entered Oxford, his parents’ alma mater, to study physics at the age of 17 in 1959. A quick study, Hawking did not find the coursework at the university very challenging, and he spent more time socializing than studying. Despite his lack of effort, he received first-class honors and began his doctorate at Cambridge three years later.
It was at a new year’s party, while attending Cambridge, that he met Jane Wilde, who was a friend of one of his sisters. A literature student, Jane was a good complement to the hyperrational yet humorous scientist-in-training, and the two were soon spending most of their non-study hours together. Unfortunately, at the same time that the two students were falling in love, Hawking was awaiting news about what appeared to be a fairly serious health issue.
Defying the Disease
In his last year at Oxford, Hawking had begun to exhibit signs of clumsiness, at one point taking a nasty tumble down a flight of stairs. Although he tried to hide his increasingly troublesome physical problems from his fellow students and family, by the end of 1962, it was obvious that he needed help. Subjected to rigorous testing for several weeks, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease” after the famous baseball player (this is the same disease that has been in the news lately due to a fundraising scheme referred to as “the ice bucket challenge”). Most people who are diagnosed with ALS die from respiratory failure within three years, and Hawking’s doctors advised him that this would be his probable lifespan beyond diagnosis.
Hawking described himself as feeling like “somewhat of a tragic character” after his diagnosis, and he was more inclined to sit around, listen to Wagner symphonies, and wait for the end than continue his doctoral work. Jane, however, refused to be cowed by the news of Hawking’s illness and vowed to stick by him. In a documentary aired last year on the BBC, she said that they planned to “defy the disease…and challenge the future.” Jane’s desire to get married motivated Hawking to make the time he had left count, and he worked hard towards obtaining his Ph.D. In July of 1965, the two students were married; in March of 1966, Hawking was awarded his doctorate and his academic career was underway.
The Hawkings felt as if they were living on borrowed time, so they tried to jam as much as they could into the early years of their marriage. They had several children in quick succession, bought a home, and tried to enjoy each other’s company as much as possible. It turned out that Hawking actually did “defy the disease”— by 1969, although he was forced to use a wheelchair, he had outlived his doctors’ prognosis by several years.
A Different Kind of Black Hole
Jane, although certainly pleased and relieved by her husband’s longevity, found the going tough. Uncomfortable with outside help, Hawking depended on his wife for all of his care. Raising several children while also taking care of her increasingly disabled husband began to wear her down. During a one-year professorship at Cal-Tech in 1975, students began to assist Jane with her husband’s care in exchange for free room-and-board at their home. This continued upon the family’s return to Cambridge. By this time, Hawking could no longer write, and his speech had become almost unintelligible.
During this period, despite his failing body, Hawking’s research into black holes had made him a star in the scientific community. He was widely celebrated by heads of state, by the pope, and most significantly, at Cambridge, where he was named Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a position of honor once held by Isaac Newton. Hawking enjoyed the notoriety publicly, but at home, as Jane put it, her husband’s illness “forced us into our own little black hole.” The sickness drove a wedge between the two, but Jane continued to hope for the best. In 1985, when a bout of pneumonia put Hawking on life support, she refused to agree to disconnect him and let him die. He recovered, and around-the-clock nursing became the norm in their household.
The Widening Chasm
In 1988, Hawking completed and published A Brief History of Time, an accessible essay that unexpectedly shot to the top of the best seller’s list, where it stayed for several years. Jane felt her marriage was “engulfed and swept away by the great wave of fame and fortune” that followed. Hawking seemed infatuated with his celebrity and began to behave like “an all-powerful emperor.” Adding to the growing chasm between the two was Hawking’s intensifying atheism, a feeling he later explored scientifically in his book The Grand Design. Jane, whose Catholic beliefs had done much to sustain her during the difficult years of the marriage, felt her husband’s scorn for her belief system and pulled further away from him.
It wouldn’t be much longer before the marriage crumbled. Hawking left Jane for his favorite nurse, a woman named Elaine Mason, in 1990; Jane married friend of the family (and her choirmaster) Jonathan Hellyer Jones in 1997. While Jane seemed to blossom in her new environment, Hawking’s marriage to Mason was fraught with allegations of abuse and eventually led to an acrimonious divorce.
The Healing Power of Time
Jane attempted to come to terms with her marriage’s history by writing two memoirs. The first, Music to Move the Stars (1999), painted a doomy picture of the disintegration of her relationship with Hawking; the second, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007), a substantial revision of the first, took a softer approach and highlighted the more positive aspects of the relationship. It is this memoir that forms the basis for The Theory of Everything.
Today, Stephen Hawking and Jane Hawking have reconciled somewhat. After many years of anger and resentment, Hawking recently made the concession that in regard to his illness, he “was never able to understand the strain it put on Jane” during their marriage. Although retired from his university chair, Hawking continues to publish (including his own short autobiography, My Brief History) and even makes the occasional foray into pop culture. He appeared on an episode of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory in 2012, and earlier this year, he wrote a newspaper piece calculating England’s odds of winning the World Cup.
The Theory of Everything looks set to renew interest in both Stephen and Jane Hawking, concentrating as it does on the hopeful aspects of their union as opposed to the eventual irreconcilable differences. Although their love story was not lasting, there is a great deal of inspiration to be derived from the Hawkings’ leap into the unknown. As Jane Hawking told The Guardian in 2004, “we were great ones for taking a chance on life.” Fortunately for us, the chance they took paid off in incalculable ways – for themselves and for the world of scientific understanding.