Public Speeches

Sightsavers Speech


This lecture is the intellectual property of Professor S.W.Hawking. You may not reproduce, edit, translate, distribute, publish or host this document in any way with out the permission of The Stephen Hawking Estate. Note that there may be incorrect spellings, punctuation and/or grammar in this document. This is to allow correct pronunciation and timing by a speech synthesiser.


'Can you hear me.


Professor Dame Athene Donald, Dr Caroline Harper, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for inviting me here today, to speak about my father’s research in neglected tropical diseases, and to honour the remarkable achievements of Sightsavers. You can see the results of my father’s work in the exhibition today. I am honoured that he should receive such attention.


We have already seen this morning, how Sightsavers has worked closely with the community in Abuja in Nigeria, to improve the health of its people. Neglected topical diseases are a scourge, which do not receive the same public attention as do other pandemics. But what better way to recognise one billion neglected tropical diseases (NTD) treatments having been distributed by Sightsavers-supported programmes, than to meet here today. And to say congratulations for this extraordinary achievement.


Your invitation for me to join you here today has put me in a nostalgic mood, and I would like to share with you some anecdotes about my childhood with my parents, and my father’s research work in tropical diseases.


I was born on January 8th, 1942, exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo. I like the symmetry of this coincidence. We lived in a tall narrow Victorian house in Highgate which my parents had bought very cheaply during the war, when everyone thought London was going to be bombed flat. In fact, a V2 rocket landed a few houses away from ours. I was away with my mother and sister at the time, and fortunately my father was not hurt. At that time, during and just after the war, Highgate was an area in which a number of scientific and academic people lived. In another country they would have been called intellectuals, but the English have never admitted to having any intellectuals.


In Highgate, our family had seemed fairly normal, but later when we had moved to St Albans so that my father could take up a new post at the National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill, I think we were definitely regarded as eccentric. This perception was increased by the behavior of my father, who cared nothing for appearance, if this allowed him to save money. He was, however, very generous to other people. I remember my parents buying a stationary gypsy caravan for holidays. It was colourfully decorated by its original owners but my father painted it green all over to make it less obvious to the authorities. It was a nice try, but he didn’t succeed. Although we holidayed in the caravan until 1958, the county council finally removed it.


As I grew up my father was very keen that I should follow him to Oxford or Cambridge. He himself had gone to University College, Oxford, so he thought I should apply there. I tried for a scholarship in natural sciences rather than in mathematics, and I surprised myself by being successful. The rest of the family went to India for a year around then, and in the summer holidays I went out to stay with them. My parents had rented a house in Lucknow but my father refused to eat Indian food, hiring an ex-British Indian Army cook to serve British meals. I would have preferred something more exciting. We also rented a houseboat in Kashmir and unfortunately, we travelled there in the monsoon. Our English car couldn’t cope with more than three inches of water so we had to be towed by a Sikh truck driver.


Returning to the UK after my time in India, I went up to Oxford for my natural sciences degree. During my time there, I did little work. I am not proud of this but it was the student culture at the time. So I didn’t do very well in my final exams. I had to be interviewed by the examiners to determine my final grade. I told them that if they gave me a first, I would go to Cambridge to do research. If I only got a second, I would stay in Oxford. They gave me a first.


After I had arrived in Cambridge to undertake my PhD, in 1962, it became clear something was not quite right with me, and I couldn’t get up after having a fall ice-skating on a frozen lake in St. Albans.  My mother realized something was wrong and took me to the doctor. I spent weeks in St Bartholomew’s hospital, and had many tests. They never actually told me what was wrong, but I guessed enough to know it was pretty bad, so I didn't want to ask. In fact, the doctor who diagnosed me washed his hands of me, and I never saw him again. He felt that there was nothing that could be done. To this day, I remain grateful that I was able to turn to my father for medical advice and support. He played an enormous part in helping me to deal with my diagnosis and subsequent illness.


What can I tell you about my father? Born in Yorkshire, the son of a farmer, he quickly showed himself to be a bright child and was sent to the Leys School in Cambridge. He gained a first class degree in medicine at Oxford before undergoing clinical studies at St Bart’s hospital. A research fellowship at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the early 30s followed, where he worked under Professor Warrington Yorke. A travelling fellowship then took him to the Radcliffe in Oxford and Columbia University, New York.  Over the next few years he pursued various possible scientific career moves in America, before returning to the Welsh National School of Medicine at Cardiff. Here he lectured before, in 1937, being awarded a research fellowship at the Medical Research Council, to work in east Africa on trypanosomiasis. It was, it seems, a somewhat flexible arrangement as he made his way to Nigeria as well, where he worked on other tropical diseases, as and when he could. When the war broke out, he undertook a heroic overland journey by all means of possible transport across Africa and down the Congo River to get a ship back to England, where he volunteered for military service. Thankfully, he was told that he was more valuable in medical research.


Towards the end of 1939 my father was offered a temporary place at National Institute for Medical Research, before being made permanent in 1940.  During his time at the Institute he was at the forefront in the development of the drug diethylcarbamazine, or DEC, which subsequently became the leading drug in the treatment of lymphatic filariasis.  When the Institute moved in 1950 from Hampstead to Mill Hill, my father became Head of the Division, later renamed ‘Parasitology’. And it was here he stayed until his retirement in 1970. I often visited his laboratory with him when I was a child. I enjoyed looking through his microscopes.


A fascinating anecdote from my sister, Mary, who is here today, sees our father in 1966 in China as part of a return visit by the Royal College of Physicians where he was a fellow. He stayed on after the official visit was over to see how China was tackling schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia. He felt the Chinese method, where everyone turned out each Spring to scrape down the waterways to interrupt the fresh water snail’s breeding season, and all human excreta was collected into large tanks and allowed to ferment, interrupted the human transmission part of the cycle. He thought this process might be possible in other countries. The point being he identified that infection control need not depend only on chemotherapy.


My father was very hardworking and dedicated to his research. He never quite shook off his interest in tropical diseases and even after he retired he could be found still pursuing his interests in working on malaria and trypanosomiasis, as well as filariasis and the physiology of circadian rhythms. Throughout his career, he made some very important discoveries about bilharzia and malaria. He worked in sometimes very difficult, even daunting, conditions. But he never gave up, and he believed fully in the role of science, to build a better world. He believed in humanity, and our ability to find solutions to the pressing problems he witnessed. But he was modest, and never able to promote himself, which meant that he was not really recognized for his contribution during his lifetime. I often feel my father deserves his own biography. His was a fascinating and remarkable life that I have only briefly skimmed here.


Turning to the work of Sightsavers now, I understand that lymphatic filariasis, one of the several tropical diseases on which my father worked, is regarded by the World Health Organisation as one of the most debilitating diseases on the planet. But it is also eradicable, or potentially eradicable. In 2000, the World Health Organisation set 2020 as a target date for the elimination of the disease. This eradication can be achieved by treatment methods that include the medication, diethylcarbamazine, or DEC, the drug on which my father worked to develop.


The success of Sightsavers’ Global Filariasis Programme is part of the Hawking legacy. My father’s work laid the foundations of the programme that has had a massive impact and alleviated the suffering of millions of people. The latest figures suggest that 120 million people are infected with this painful disease. It is heartening therefore to learn that Sightsavers and its partners have responded to this by widening its approach. Instead of targeting diseases that cause solely visual impairment and blindness, the charity is now turning its attention to diseases that cause a wider disability. As a result, it now focuses on five NTDs: two blinding and three non-blinding conditions. I know my father would be greatly heartened by this news and I urge everyone to get behind this new strategy to ensure that non-one is left behind. 


I am a scientist. And a scientist with a deep fascination for physics, cosmology, the universe, and the future of humanity.  I was brought up by my parents to have an unwavering curiosity and, like my father, to research and try to answer the many questions that science asks us. My current research focuses on black holes, the Big Bang and whether or not the universe has a beginning date. These are big topics that remain largely theoretical. What is not theoretical is the minutiae of Sightsavers’ work in the field, treating and helping the NTD community on a day-to-day basis. Your challenges are huge and more practical than mine, but your search for solutions to your big questions is no less important. The ultimate elimination of neglected tropical diseases has thrived on innovation, working alongside communities and a network of local people who help deliver the treatments.


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. However our small planet is all we have to work with and it is to charities such as Sightsavers that we turn to focus on the present. I understand that it continues to embrace new technologies for programmes such as the successful Global Trachoma Mapping Project, and now the Tropical Data initiative, in using mobile phones to map the prevalence of tropical diseases, and to track the success of its programmes. Even in the most remote and marginalised communities in the world.


Sightsavers and its partners have taken one billion steps towards combating NTDs. The smallpox, polio and Guinea worm programmes all demonstrate that the last mile on the journey to elimination is always the most difficult. Therefore, much still remains to be done if we are to reach our elimination targets.


In any ambitious programme, be it research into the farthest corners of the known universe, or the planned growth for an international health programme, none of us can rest and assume that our current tools and resources are sufficient to achieve success.


I would like to take this opportunity to encourage everyone at Sightsavers to succeed with its aims. During my life I have learned that if we put our minds to it, success can be within our grasp.  I wish Sightsavers good luck with its immense challenges and I look forward to hearing about its progress and success.


Thank you for listening.'