Hawking history

It was good to hear the reports of Stephen Hawking’s speech at his 70th birthday celebrations at the weekend. The Independent ran the story under the headline “I owe it all to my father” and noted that

Hawking spoke movingly of the role his father played in picking him up from the devastating diagnosis when he was just beginning his PhD at Cambridge University

His father was Frank Hawking (1905-1986) who spent much of his working life at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) working on parasitology.  A quick glance at his thick  file in our archives reveals that he was an interesting character.  Conversations with one or two people who worked with him confirms that impression. He does seem to have got into one or two scrapes along the way.

Born the son of a farmer, Frank soon showed himself to be a bright child and was sent to the Leys School, in Cambridge.  He gained a first class degree at Oxford then took clinical studies at St Bart’s.  After finishing his clinical training he was awarded a research fellowship at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine where he worked under Warrington Yorke from 1930-33.  Frank then held a travelling fellowship at the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, spending some time at Columbia University, New York. In early 1934 he wrote to two senior staff at NIMR asking whether he might be accommodated there if he were successful in winning a Beit memorial fellowship. The Institute Director, Sir Henry Dale, replied encouragingly that there might be space available.  Unfortunately as it turned out Hawking was not successful in his application for the fellowship.  Over the next few years he continued to correspond with Dale about various possible scientific career moves.  Dale  was a fellow old Leysian and seemed well disposed to assisting Frank in his career.

Hawking spent some years lecturing in pharmacology at the Welsh National School of Medicine at Cardiff and then in 1937 he was awarded a research fellowship of the Medical Research Council to work in east Africa on trypanosomiasis.  It seems to have been a flexible fellowship as he made his way to Nigeria too, and he worked on other tropical diseases as the opportunity presented itself. Towards the end of 1939 he was offered a place at NIMR and in early 1940 returned to the UK to take up a temporary position in NIMR’s Division of Chemotherapy. Within a few months he was appointed to the  permanent staff at NIMR. When the Institute moved in 1950 from Hampstead to Mill Hill, Hawking became head of the Division, later renamed “Parasitology”, where he stayed until his retirement in 1970. After retirement he continued in research, first in the USA then for three years at the MRC’s Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park and later at Brunel University.

On his retirement the MRC Annual Report (1970-71) said:

“Dr Hawking’s association with the Council goes back to 1937, when he was awarded an MRC senior travelling fellowship in tropical medicine. He joined the staff of the Institute in 1940 and built up his division into an important centre for the study of tropical infections. He will continue to pursue his interest in malaria and trypanosomiasis, with grant support from the Council, at the Clinical Research Centre.”

His obituary in the BMJ records that

His DM thesis in 1933 was nominally on induced drug resistance in trypanosomes but strayed into immunology, host specificity, and quantitative studies on the uptake of acriflavine by the parasites. This last subject was further developed until in 1938 he was able to estimate the intracellular concentrations of acriflavine in normal and resistant strains; he considered this to be his finest intellectual achievement.

As he joined NIMR just as the war was beginning, he then directed his efforts to the treatment of wounds, and determined the best methods for preventing gas gangrene by topical treatment with sulphonamides. He also worked on malaria and later on the tropical disease filariasis and the physiology of circadian rhythms.

As well as the BMJ obit, see his entry in Munk’s Roll,  VIII, pp. 215-6, for further information.

There does not seem to be a biography of Frank Hawking, but I think it would be an interesting read.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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9 Responses to Hawking history

  1. Wonderful summary (and digging), Frank. I think you may just have nominated yourself as his biographer.

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks, Richard. I would have liked to do a bit more digging but time was short and it needs delicate handling.

    Not sure about tackling a biography myself – that sounds like quite a challenge – but I hope someone might be inspired to look into it further.

  3. cromercrox says:

    A lovely post about your namesake. I shall consider myself informed.

  4. Jon Marsh says:

    For my first year or so at NIMR, back in the late 1960s, I worked in the same room as Dr Hawking along with Neil Brown and others. I was Neil’s technician, so I have loads of anecdotes about Frank Hawking.

    He had a habit of eating dried toast, that he brought in from home and he kept in the top drawer of his desk. In the other side of this double drawer we kept the glass syringes, laid on cotton wool. Ken Gammage went to get a syringe and pulled the drawer, catching Hawking’s fingers in the other side where he had been fiddling with his toast, he stood up bellowing in pain!

    He had a good sense of humour. One day he caught out Sandra Ravenhill, our divisional secretary. She came in our door and did not see Dr H. hiding behind his desk and she said “The old bugger’s not in yet then” and he stood up saying “caught you that time Miss Ravenhill”.

    I think he was a kind man, but very much of the old school. There were two doors to our room as it was a double sized lab. Hawking used one door, and the rest of us all used the other. He was careful with his money. He had a car, but to save money he used an old moped to come in from his home in St Albans. When he had a bit of his old moped welded up by Ken Green (the welder) he gave Ken a packet of 10 fags as a reward, then he took them back, removed 5 loose ones, passed them to Ken and kept the packet with 5 left, well that’s Ken’s story.

  5. Ronan Short says:

    Here’s my own brief anecdote about Stephen Hawking.

    My sister Sally and I and other MRC kids used to play football on the ornamental gardens next to the tennis courts, much to the chagrin of Mr. Winfield the head groundskeeper. This was about 1951 or so. From time to time this skinny straggler would appear, stand around, not say much and eventually be asked to join in. Always into the least desirable position – goalie. Well, he was awful, absent-mindedly staring around. He never paid attention to the ball or the game. One time Sally got so frustrated with him she yelled out: “Stephen! Pay attention – you’ve let in three goals already. The game’s down here not up in the sky!”

    Apparently we were all wrong! Happy Birthday Stephen!

    I have to admit this story’s had a lot of re-telling over the years here in Alaska as we followed Stephen’s remarkable career.

  6. Frank says:

    Thanks, Jon and Ronan, for the interesting personal reminiscences. I must find a way to collect all these little bits of history more effectively.

  7. Pingback: Stephen Hawking in a Nutshell - From Quarks to Quasars

  8. Pingback: From Quarks to Quasars » Stephen Hawking in a Nutshell

  9. Mary Hawking says:

    Hi all
    My father wrote his own autobiography in 1971 and was keen to get it published.
    If anyone is seriously thinking about writing one, get in touch with me: just google Mary Hawking NOT stephen and we can discuss…