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'We read Sherlock Holmes stories to him to keep his spirits up' - Kiwi physicist remembers comforting Stephen Hawking in UK hospital 30 years ago

A Kiwi physics professor has recalled rallying the spirits of Stephen Hawking over three decades ago in a Cambridge Hospital, as the renowned physicist recovered from pneumonia in the days before his distinctive computer speech machine.

University of Canterbury's David Wiltshire has paid tribute to his renowned fellow theoretical physicist Hawking, who died yesterday, and the experience of keeping him company in a hospital as a young student.

"Thirty-three years ago I was one of the students who took turns to keep him company in Addenbrookes Hospital," Professor Wiltshire said.

"It was the time he came very close to death from pneumonia. We read Sherlock Holmes stories to him to keep his spirits up.

"That was just after he had lost his voice to a trachaeotomy. Every word had to be spelled by us pointing to letters on a board and watching his eye responses.

"It was frustrating and he was depressed. But as always, he hung on and never gave up."

Professor Wiltshire credited Hawking as the "most courageous person I have known" with an "uncanny ability" to defy expectation in science and life generally.

"He had to face his own mortality far, far longer than most of us," Professor Wiltshire said.

"Today's news could have easily happened decades ago."

The Canterbury scientist recalled how the despondency of Hawking's loss of voice, and illness, was improved soon after his hospital stay by a distinctive trait that was to remain until his death.

"Happily, shortly after that Stephen acquired his famous computer voice, giving voice to the sense of humour which had long entertained his colleagues," Wiltshire said.

"By the time the drafts of 'Brief History of Time' were coming off the printer in the computer room where we typed up our research papers, Stephen was already famous — but not the yet the icon of popular culture he was to become.

"The computer voice enabled that: he reached a huge audience as a lecturer as well as a popular author. The rest is history."