Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's first wife Jane Wilde has revealed that her religious faith was integral in enabling her to care for him during their marriage.

In an interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Wilde revealed that in 1985, Hawking, who is a staunch atheist, was struck down by pneumonia while participating in research at CERN that left him in a coma.

Wilde said that she received a phone call from the hospital in Switzerland letting her know that he was close to death.

"Please Lord, let Stephen live," was the prayer she recalls saying.

The doctors said that there was nothing else that they could do, and asked her for permission to turn off Hawking's life support, but Wilde refused.

"Turning off the respirator was unthinkable. What could more shameful then for such a heroic struggle for life to end! It would negate everything that I too had fought so hard for," she said.

"My response was instant: Stephen should live."

A decision that changed their lives forever

Due to the critical situation at hand, doctors had to perform a tracheotomy on Hawking, which succeeded in saving his life, but left him unable to speak and requiring the electronic voice synthesiser that the world now associates with him.

Wilde is now 70. She married Hawking in 1965 after meeting him through his sister at a party when he was 23, a year after he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.

"It was a challenge, but I believed that together we could beat the disease," she recalls.

Stephen Hawking with his second wife Elaine Mason in 2005
Stephen Hawking with his second wife Elaine Mason (now divorced) in 2005 Getty Images

"I was very young, and when one is young, you do not think about death. Death can be overcome, and I was sure we would win the battle.

"We were in love, in a state of euphoria. We decided to get married, and didn't really think much about the disease. We were still young enough to feel immortal. "

Their marriage lasted for 30 years, with the couple separating in 1990 and then divorcing five years later.

One consequence of the tracheotomy is that Hawking has required round-the-clock care ever since, provided initially by PHD students living with the family and later nurses.

Elaine Mason, one of the nurses, who was married when she came to care for Hawking, would eventually become his second wife.

Her faith helped her to endure

Apart from Hawking's increasing devotion to "the goddess Physics" to the exclusion of his family, another reason for their strained marriage was tension rising from Hawking routinely making fun of Wilde's Christian faith.

"I understand the reasons for Stephen's atheist beliefs, because if at the age of 21 a person is diagnosed with a terrible disease, are you going to believe in God? I think not," Wilde admits.

"But I needed my faith, because it gave me the support and comfort I needed to continue. Without my faith, I would have had nothing but the support from my parents and some friends. But through faith, I always thought it was going to overcome all the problems that arose me."

In September 2014, Hawking said in an interview with El Mundo that "miracles are not compatible with science."

When reminded of this fact and shown the newspaper headline, Wilde smiles.

"Did he say that? Well it's funny, because I think it's a miracle that he's still alive. It is a miracle of medical science, the determination of the human spirit – many miracles put altogether.

"To me, that's very difficult to explain."