Alan Turing

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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.

This post was first published on 25 September 2010. Additional information added on 22 and 23 June 2012.

SP

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