Stephen Hawking wasn’t just a scientific genius he was a medical anomaly.
The British-born theoretical physicist defied the odds by living until the age of 76 despite being given just two years to live when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in 1963, when he was 21 years old.
“What’s happened to him is just astounding,” Dr. Leo McCluskey, an associate professor of neurology and a doctor at the ALS Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told Scientific American in 2012. “He’s certainly an outlier.”
Most people develop ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous Yankees player who died of it in 1941 — between the ages of 40 and 70 and live about two to five years after being diagnosed, according to the ALS Association.
Up to 10 percent of ALS patients live more than 10 years.
McCluskey said it’s possible that the visionary lived so long because he contracted ALS at a young age.
“Juvenile onset is diagnosed in the teenage years, and I don’t know enough about his course to say. But it’s probably something similar to juvenile-onset disorder, which is something that progresses very, very, very slowly,” the doctor said. “I have patients in my clinic who were diagnosed in their teens and are still alive in their 40s, 50s or 60s. But not having ever examined him or taken a history, it’s a little hard for me to say.”
Dr. Anthony Geraci, director of the Neuromuscular Center at Northwell Health’s Neuroscience Institute on Long Island, said Hawking could just have had good genes.
“ALS is probably 20 or more different diseases when one considers the genetic underpinnings,” Geraci told Live Science.
Differences in the genes could affect different aspects of ALS, like survival.
Hawking used a cheek-controlled speech synthesizer to speak after a tracheotomy left him speechless during a near-fatal bout of pneumonia in 1985. He also received around-the-clock care.