Was Stephen Hawking’s Illness Psychosomatic? (No.)

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Was Stephen Hawking’s Illness Psychosomatic? (No.)

A paper in a peer-reviewed medical journal makes the suggestion that physicist Stephen Hawking’s disability, which famously confined him to a wheelchair and robbed him of his speech, was psychosomatic in nature.

Hmm. I think this says more about the author than it does about Hawking.

The paper is called Delusional Health Beliefs and it comes by British doctor Peter May. It was published a few days ago in the Medico-Legal Journal.

May begins the paper by discussing conversion disorder. This is the term for symptoms which appear to indicate physical illness but in fact are driven by a psychological cause.

May then drops the following bombshell:

I have to confess – and may be entirely wrong about this – that I have long been sceptical about Stephen Hawking’s diagnosis of motor neurone disease (MND). This is such an outrageous thought that I have until now largely kept it to myself to avoid opprobrium.

What is May’s basis for this claim? His main point, it seems, is that MND is a rapidly fatal disorder that appears in old people whereas Hawking’s illness was diagnosed at age 21 and he survived with his disease until the age of 76. As May puts it,

I have known several people with MND, patients and friends. None of them were young. They all deteriorated rapidly and they died within about two years of diagnosis. This is a disease of older people, which is relentlessly progressive and invariably fatal.

This is a pretty weak argument. It has long been noted that Hawking was atypical of MND patients but this does not mean that he did not have MND. MND is a disorder with variable presentation, and there are other atypical cases on record who survived for decades.

While there do seem to have been neurologists who have doubted Hawking’s MND diagnosis over the years, to my knowledge it was never suggested that his illness was psychosomatic, but rather that he actually suffered from another neurodegenerative disorder such as spinal muscular atrophy.

The rest of May’s argument is based on supposed implausible elements in Hawking’s story of his original MND diagnosis, and contradictions between his autobiography and the 2014 movie about his life (The Theory of Everything), but this is not very convincing.

Perhaps the low point of the paper is where May implies that actor Eddie Redmayne’s ability to simulate MND symptoms while playing Hawking in the movie means that Hawking himself might have been (unconsciously?) simulating them:

After seeing the film, I reflected that even if he had previously observed people with this disease, [Hawking] could never have mimicked it. Until it dawned on me that Eddy Redmayne had done exactly that.

Overall, it’s a bit of a shocker that this kind of weak speculation was published in a seemingly respectable academic journal.

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