Gonville and Caius: Hawking's academic home

20 March 2018

Interview with 

Professor Sir Alan Fersht, Master, Caius College, Cambridge

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Flowers laid in memory of Stephen Hawking at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

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Professor Stephen Hawking began his scientific career as an undergraduate at Oxford University in 1959 and then made his way over to Cambridge in the early 60s to start a PhD. He subsequently become a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, a place he described as “a constant thread running through my life”. Georgia Mills went to meet the Master of Caius, Professor Sir Alan Fersht, to find out what he got up to there...

Alan - He was larger than life. His presence was felt all the time. We were very very proud of him and he clearly loved the college as well. Stephen first came here in 1965 as a Research Fellow. A research Fellowship is a very prestigious award for outstanding young people to study and do research.

Georgia - When did you first encounter him?

Alan - I first encountered him in 1965 as well because I started that year as a graduate student. In those days, as today, students would dine in college as would the faculty or dons, as we called them. The dons should sit at high table; we would be slightly lower down. I remember very well seeing Stephen hobble onto high table with the aid of a stick. We knew in those days that he was a very special person because of his brilliance. What we didn’t know, and didn’t learn until a little later, that he was meant to live only another two years.

I went away from Cambridge and came back in 1988 as a fellow of this college and met up with Stephen again, and I even took part in a conference with him on the origins of life and the origins of the universe, and I spoke more about life and he obviously spoke about the universe. But I got to know him a lot more since I became Master and I would entertain him on high table, this time as Master rather than look at him as a student. He would be wheeled in by his carers; he really enjoyed coming to college; he liked seeing people; he liked being with the students and the students loved Stephen’s coming in.

Georgia - What was he like as a character? How did people know him?

Alan - He was fun. He clearly enjoyed himself and he clearly wanted everybody else to enjoy themselves, and he was never put out by anything that was asked to do. He was perfectly happy to pose with selfies; he was happy to help with the college to raise money; he would inspire students; he would see people, and he had a mischievous sense of humour.

Georgia - I’ve heard rumours that he liked to host parties as well?

Alan - Oh, he certainly did. I was only every invited to one of them; it was about six months after I became Master and it was a fancy dress one. Well I didn’t realise it was fancy dress but his intimate guests did. He was dressed up as Neptune with a trident.

Georgia - Is it here he hosted his infamous time travellers party as well?

Alan - Yes, it was. It was in his room in Caius that he waited for the time traveller to come back and have tea with him. I gather it didn’t work out.

Georgia - Who knows? Maybe those time-travellers got the date wrong!

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