Affliction, Fame, and Fortune
Stephen Hawking, described accurately as “the most remarkable scientist of our time,” and inaccurately as a second Einstein (“perhaps an equal of Einstein,” according to Time magazine in 1978), was born in Oxford on January 8, 1942. On January 8, 1642, three hundred years earlier, Galileo Galilei died, and in December of the year 1642 Isaac Newton was born.
It was wartime when Stephen, the Hawkings’ first child, came into the world, and his mother, Isobel, had chosen an Oxford hospital for the delivery because the university town was safe from German bombing. (The German Luftwaffe agreed to spare Oxford and Cambridge if the Royal Air Force would do the same for Heidelberg and Gottingen.) Oxford was not a permanent haven, however. Isobel and her husband Frank lived in Highgate, a northern London suburb, where there was a real bomb threat; a near hit by a German V-2 rocket damaged the Hawking house but none of its inhabitants.
Frank and Isobel Hawking both came from the north, Frank from Yorkshire and Isobel from Glasgow. Both had been students in Oxford, but they did not meet there. Frank studied medicine and became a researcher in tropical medicine. “The vivacious and friendly Isobel,” as Hawking's biographers Michael White and John Gribbin describe her, met her future husband at the medical research institute where he was later employed. She had taken a secretarial job there, “for which she was ridiculously overqualified.”
When Stephen was eight, the family moved twenty miles north of Highgate to the cathedral city of St. Albans. The Hawkings bought a large Victorian house there, “of some elegance and character,” as Hawking recalls. He continues: “My parents were not very well off when they bought it and they had to have quite a lot of work done on it before we could move in. Thereafter my father, like the Yorkshireman he was, refused to pay for any further repairs. Instead, he did his best to keep it going and keep it painted, but it was a big house and he was not very skilled in such matters. The house was solidly built, however, so it withstood this neglect.”