The physicist Stephen W. Hawking died on March 14, 2018 at age 76. A memorable quote from his obituary in The New York Times reads: “Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world.”
Among his contemporaries, Hawking was by far the best known. A Jan. 2018 poll by Research!America found 81 percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist; among the minority who could, most respondents—by a clear margin—wrote in Hawking’s name (less popular responses: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye).
Hawking became famous through his groundbreaking contributions in theoretical physics, but he also earned a prominent place in cultural and political life. It’s exceedingly rare for a scientist to live so publicly and to earn recognition for achievements both in and beyond the research lab.
As an educator and author, Hawking made the cosmos accessible. He leveraged his reputation to advocate for policies that he believed were friendly to scientific achievement. In these endeavors, he sought to create conditions under which we can better understand the universe while improving the human condition.
Regarding the inclusion of animals in scientific and medical research, Hawking felt strongly. In 1998, he entered a debate and expressed his support for animal research. While animal rights activists squared off against police in riot gear about 100 miles east, Hawking spoke out against violence and intimidation directed at scientists.
“I think the fuss over the use of animals in medical research is ridiculous. Why is it worse to use animal experiments to save lives than to eat them, which the majority of the population are happy to do? I suspect that extremists turn to animal rights from a lack of the more worthwhile causes of the past, like nuclear disarmament.”
It is difficult to imagine Hawking’s feelings about medical progress and innovation in research were not deeply personal. In 1963, the physicist was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neuromuscular disease with which he was expected to live only a few more years. In the decades that followed, Hawking became a celebrated scientist and cultural icon. He made cameo appearances on popular television shows, gave interviews on late-night talk show programs, published bestselling books on cosmology, and was famously portrayed in the 2014 biopic “The Theory of Everything”. All the while, Hawking’s disease laid waste to his body, confining him to a wheelchair and eventually restricting his voluntary movements to only his finger and eyes.
As Hawking’s speech deteriorated, he delivered lectures with the aid of an interpreter; to write scientific papers, he relied on transcription performed by a secretary. But in 1985, after a bout with pneumonia, Hawking permanently lost his ability to speak. Shortly thereafter, it was a computer program, a device that operates by recording eye movements, that would allow Hawking to produce some of the most celebrated work of his career. With the new technology, in 1988 he published “A Brief History of Time”, which would sell more than 10 million copies.
In 1996, Hawking stated: “Computers can do amazing things. But even the most powerful computers can’t replace animal experiments in medical research.” He understood computer simulations and technology cannot completely replace the need for animals in research. And this was his position even after advancements in computer software helped him overcome disabilities caused by the progression of his ALS.
The development of the Brain-Computer Interface and other assistive technologies that allowed Hawking to communicate in the late stages of his disease have improved the quality of life for some patients with ALS. But treatments that could save lives or improve longevity will be discovered through research with animals—not computers. Patients diagnosed today face the same odds Hawking did when he learned he had the disease 55 years ago: most will not survive beyond two to four years. Researchers must find the cause behind ALS, as well as new treatments and therapies.
Until very recently, scientists were holding an empty bag. Non-human animals cannot develop ALS naturally, and in animals it’s difficult to replicate all of the various behaviors and physiological traits associated with the disease’s progression in people. But gene editing has facilitated some significant progress on this front. With CRISPR/Cas9 technology, researchers have created mouse and rat models that more closely mimic the traits of the disease in humans. Already, this has led to new discoveries about ALS—including the identification of genes that modify its severity, in a mouse study whose findings were published just before Hawking’s death. Advancements in the scientific and medical understanding of the disease will pave the way for the development and testing of new, targeted therapies.
Considering the poor prognosis and debilitating progression of ALS, the need for research breakthroughs is substantial. Hawking’s endorsement of the inclusion of animal models in that research speaks to his experience as a patient, his lifelong pursuit of knowledge, and his commitment to progress. Equipping researchers with the tools they need to better understand and cure diseases like ALS is perhaps the perfect way to honor the legacy of a beloved scientist whose contributions to physics were equaled only by his “capacity for wonder.”