Alan Turing | Public domain | 14380
Genius mathematician and scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954) was discriminated against because he was gay. Turing is regarded as one of the founding fathers of computing. He was also a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during world war two and subsequently worked for GCHQ.
Turing’s first major contribution to science was a paper written when he was 24 on an abstruse maths theory that shook the world of pure maths to its foundations.
His prosecution in 1952 for gross indecency with a young man and subsequent treatment by the authorities are widely blamed for his death at the age of 41. On the occasion of the centenary of his birth additional information has become public.
Turing was arrested on 7 February 1952 for his affair with a young Manchester man.
Science Museum | 14381
He was obliged to undertake injections of female hormones intended to render him asexual (chemical castration).
The information about Turing was first made public in the 1970s by the Gay Liberation Front.
After 1948 the Cold War, security vetting and the needs of the American alliance ended the “one-of-our-chaps” basis on which he had been recruited in 1938. After 1952, Turing had to stop the work he had continued to do for GCHQ, and what he cryptically referred to as a “crisis” in 1953 seems to have involved intense surveillance. It is for this very special and secret reason that his life in 1954 might well have seemed impossible to bear.
The Bletchley Park codebreaking story, totally secret in 1954, became public after 1974, and Alan Turing emerged a genius of cryptographic theory and with responsibility for the war against U-boats.
Turing’s work: Crown Copyright | 14382
Turing expert Prof Jack Copeland questions the evidence that was presented at the 1954 inquest and believes the evidence would not today be accepted as sufficient to establish a suicide verdict. He thinks Turing’s death may equally probably have been an accident. Prof Copeland emphasises, a coroner these days would demand evidence of pre-meditation before announcing a verdict of suicide, yet nothing in the accounts of Turing’s last days suggest he was in anything but a cheerful mood. At the inquest, the coroner, Mr JAK Ferns declared: “In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.” What he meant by “of this type” is unclear.
Turing had a number of gay friends. The authorities’ interest in Turing became apparent in 1953 when a gay Norwegian acquaintance, Kjell, announced by postcard his intention to visit him at his Wilmslow home, but mysteriously never arrived. “At one stage, the police over the north of England were out searching for him,” Turing is reported to have commented.
The oppression, the failure to appreciate his wartime contributions, his sidelining at the Manchester computer department, have led to an image of Turing being hounded during his last years, and suicide being a natural outcome. In fact, to the end of his life he had a good social life and was cheerful.
Turing often performed experiments in his room at home. Prof Copeland notes that Turing’s room had a “strong smell” of cyanide after his death; that inhalation leads to a slower death than ingestion; and that the distribution of the poison in Turing’s organs was more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion. Perhaps he had accidentally put his apple into a puddle of cyanide. Or perhaps, more likely, he had accidentally inhaled cyanide vapours from the bubbling liquid.
Others claim that the experiment was set up to mislead people into thinking it was not suicide.
We may never know the exact truth of what happened to Mr Turing.
On 9 September 2009, Gordon Brown, then British Prime Minister, issued a posthumous apology to Alan Turing for the ‘appalling’ way he was punished for being gay, and that he was ‘deeply sorry’ for the inhumane treatment of the Cambridge mathematician.
Thirty thousand people had signed a petition seeking the apology.
“Alan Turing helped save this country,” said Lord Sharkey. “His work on cracking the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park during World War 2 undoubtedly changed the course of the war and saved many thousands of lives. Instead of being rewarded by his country, he was cruelly punished and convicted simply for being gay. If my Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, then this will finally go some way towards acknowledging the debt we all owe to Alan Turing and grant him the pardon he so clearly deserves.”
A petition to have Turing pardoned gathered 37,402 signatures in favour of granting him an official pardon.
Alan Turing, age 16, in 1928, from his school photograph | 14128
Computer pioneer and second world war code breaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous royal pardon which addresses his 1952 conviction for gross indencency, an offence at the time, for which he was punished by being chemically castrated. The pardon was granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy after a request by Justice Minister Chris Grayling, and follows a year long campaign to clear his name, and a petition which was signed by more than 37,000 people.
A genius, Turing’s work had a huge impact on Allied efforts to read German Naval messages enciphered with the Enigma machine. He also contributed some more fundamental work on code breaking that was only released to public scrutiny in April 2012.
“Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man,” said Justice Minister Chris Grayling.
The pardon took effect on Christmas Eve 2013.
A pardon is only normally granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member. Dr. Turing’s pardon is historic because neither of those conditions has been met.