Stephen Hawking’s Keynote Speech at Sightsavers Event

Frank Hawking Honored by Continued Work of Sightsavers’ Tropical Disease Programs

Dr. Stephen Hawking is well known for his contributions to theoretical physics and cosmology, but the scientific legacy of the Hawking family did not begin with Stephen. During a mid-December speech in 2017 at a Sightsavers event, Dr. Stephen Hawking recollected the dedication of his father’s work and relived the nostalgia of growing up with his father. Also present for the speech was Stephen Hawking’s sister, Mary.

Stephen Hawking underlined the efforts of tropical disease eradication, stating, “Tropical Diseases are a scourge, and do not receive the same attention as other Pandemics.” As devoted as anyone could be to the eradication of global pandemics, Dr. Frank Hawking was a man who was almost as devoted to tropical disease prevention and treatment as he was to his family, and Stephen Hawking saw his father’s life work being continued through the efforts of Sightsavers.

During Dr. Stephen Hawking’s presentation, he presented his father’s history, which he called fascinating, and which he lamented that “I have only briefly skimmed here.” Frank Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s father, was the son of a farmer who showed great potential from a young age.

Eventually, he went on to obtain his medical degree at Oxford University, where his passion for the treatment of tropical diseases began. Farther down the road, his work led him to study under Professor Warrington Yorke at the University of Liverpool’s Tropical Medicine department, which subsequently led him to West Africa and Nigeria to work on the eradication of devastating tropical diseases.

But Frank Hawking also felt tied to England and his family. When the war broke out and Hawking was still in Africa, he took extra efforts to get back to England and volunteer for duty, even traveling down what is known as “The Heart of Darkness,” Africa’s Congo River, to get back to England as quickly as he could. When Frank Hawking was denied a spot in the military, on the claims that “he was more useful” as a doctor, he returned to his studies and eventually started his family.

Stephen Hawking, born on January 8th, 1942, saw his birth as a scientific coincidence continuing the legacy of science in his household. He was born 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo. Stephen Hawking said that he liked “the symmetry of this coincidence.” Continuing with anecdotes about his childhood, he recalls his family’s adventurous sense, noting “In another country, they would have been called intellectuals, but the English have never admitted to having any intellectuals.”

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This sense of uniqueness carried over when they moved as Stephen got older and his father became the head of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research in St. Albans, Hertfordshire. He also recalls fondly spending holidays in a green painted Romani caravan that they bought and had until 1958 when it was confiscated by local authorities.

There, a love of science was continually fostered for Dr. Stephen Hawking by his father. He said that he loved “looking through the microscopes” at the National Institute for Medical Research, where his father continued his work with Neglected Tropical Diseases or NTDs. Dr. Frank Hawking was always looking for ways to further the research of NTDs and would often spend time evaluating the way cultures who had eradicated diseases did so without the use of, as Stephen Hawking put it, chemotherapy.

In one case in China, Frank Hawking watched people scrape the canals of snails during a point in the year and gather up human waste to control this disease. He noted that this could have been key to the continued prevention of the diseases. Still, Dr. Hawking worked tirelessly to eradicate particular diseases, like lymphatic filariasis, so much so that he became vital in the creation of DEC, which was and still is the leading drug in treating lymphatic filariasis.

Father Son Mission to Better the World

Dr. Frank Hawking continued his work after retirement and was faithful and diligent to his family throughout the remainder of his life. Dr. Stephen Hawking recalled the role that his father played in his diagnosis of ALS. He remembers being diagnosed at the age of 21, in 1962, and not being given more than a 2-year projected lifespan after his initial diagnosis.

Stephen Hawking recalls “being abandoned” by his medical doctor, but not by his father. During his speech, he emphasized that his father’s dedication to medicine was a labor of love, saying, “Today, I am grateful that I was able to turn to my father for medical support. He played an enormous part in helping me to deal with my diagnosis and subsequent illness.”

Part of the reason that Dr. Stephen Hawking was invited to talk at this summit was to honor the work of his father being continued through Sightsavers. Dr. Hawking said of his father that he was, “modest, and never desired to promote himself, which meant that he was not really recognized for his contribution during his lifetime.”

Dr. Hawking lauded the work of Sightsavers after recalling the life of his father. Of the more than 1 billion treatments that have been delivered by Sightsavers include the medicine for Filariasis, which includes the medication that was created in part by his father. Hawking said of the program, “the success of Sightsavers’ Global Filariasis Program is part of Frank Hawking’s’ legacy.”

Current figures put the number of people infected with NTDs worldwide at 120 million people. Lymphatic filariasis is regarded by the World Health Organization as one of the most debilitating diseases on the planet, impacting the lymph nodes. It is a parasite spread by mosquitos that impacts the skin, among other things, causing notable swelling in limbs as well as compromising the body’s ability to fight illness. Dr. Hawking underlined that with continued treatment and diligence, he believed that this disease could be eliminated.

Sightsavers’ Mission to Eradicate Disease

Sightsavers is part of this elimination program. What started out as an organization dedicated to eradicating preventable blindness has become so much more. They still work to prevent blindness, but they also advocate for education and fair treatment of people with disabilities, providing education and vocational training.

Additionally, they work with governments worldwide to hit at the roots of the problems they attend to. Now a disability rights advocate and part of a global movement to aid the poorest parts of the United States with obtaining much needed healthcare, Sightsavers to this date has delivered over 1 billion NTD treatments worldwide.

Their programs focus on five NTDs. Two of these NTDs, Trachoma and River Blindness cause blindness. Trachoma is the number one infections blindness disease in the world, and its insipidness is partly due to the fact that it looks a lot like conjunctivitis. It causes scarring on the eyelid, which eventually causes great pain and then blindness as the eyelashes turn in and scrape against the eye.

River Blindness is caused by the infected bite of blackflies and can cause itching, irritation, and eventually blindness. Both diseases are treatable with medication, and the hope of the organization is that with continued and diligent treatment these diseases will be wiped out. Three other diseases – Lymphatic Filariasis, Intestinal Worms, and Schistosomiasis, do not cause blindness. However, because they cause such widespread disability and death, Sightsavers understood that it was under their scope of support to try and eliminate these diseases.

Dr. Stephen Hawking, who was invited to speak at the event celebrating Sightsavers’ 1,000,000,000th treatment, agreed with them. He applauded their efforts, emphasizing that although elimination targets are in place, there was still a lot of work that needed to be done to reach those elimination targets. “Earth is one small part of the cosmos. And we currently run the risk of damaging what we have. Our physical reserves are being drained, and there is the challenge of climate change.

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However, our small planet is all we must work with, and it is to charities such as Sightsavers that we turn to focus on the present.” Dr. Hawking delivered this speech only a few months before his passing, and the legacy that he and his family have left emphasize the great strides that have been taken in the field of science, and Dr. Hawking’s words were an encouragement to continue to improve scientific methods for the greater good of mankind and ultimately the world.

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