In Britain, the story of Alan Turing is one steeped in both national pride and national shame.
On June 7, 1954, Alan Turing, a British mathematician who has since been acknowledged as one the most innovative and powerful thinkers of the 20th century, died a criminal.
He was just 41-years-old.
Turing, often now referred to as the progenitor of modern computing, was convicted for the crime of homosexuality under Victorian laws and forced to endure chemical castration.
In 1936, Turing published a paper that is now recognised as the foundation of computer science. Ten years later he would turn his revolutionary idea into a practical plan for an electronic computer, capable of running any program.
Turin was later credited with cracking the Nazi Enigma code in the Second World War, thus helping bring it to an end years earlier than was predicted. His contribution is thought to have saved an estimated 21 millions lives in the process.
In July 1939, the Polish Cipher Bureau revealed crucial information about the Enigma machine, which was used by the Germans to encipher all its military and naval signals. After September 1939, joined by other mathematicians at Bletchley Park, Turing developed a new machine, the ‘Bombe’, which was capable of breaking Enigma messages on an industrial scale.
In 1954, Turing was arrested for gross indecency due to his relationship with a 19-year-old man from Manchester. All male homosexual activity was illegal in Britain until 1967, and Turing was prosecuted when an affair with a young man came to the notice of the police.
Rather than go to prison he accepted probation on the condition of having hormonal treatment which was, in effect, a chemical castration.
Following his conviction, Turing was deemed a security risk by government officials and, during his final year of life, was harassed by police surveillance.
He committed suicide at age 41.
On June 8, 1954, Turin’s housekeeper discovered his body. The official verdict was that Turing had died from suicide, by way of self-administered cyanide poisoning. A half-eaten apple sitting on his bedside table was presumed to be the vehicle with which he had poisoned himself.
In terms of a motive for Turing’s death, it was considered to be depression as a result of the forced chemical castration he had endured.
Somewhat ironically, given the contributing factors involved in his death, Turing was both born and died during the month of June, which would later become Pride Month.
While in his lifetime, being gay was a criminal offence.
Only in 2009 did the UK government apologize for his treatment.
“We’re sorry — you deserved so much better,” said Gordon Brown, then the prime minister. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was, under homophobic laws were treated terribly.”
And only in 2013 did Queen Elizabeth II grant Turing a royal pardon, 59 years after his housekeeper discovered his dead body at his home at Wilmslow, near Manchester, in northwest England.
His life story was immortalised in 2014 in Oscar winning hit film The Imitation Game, where he was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch who went on to campaign for posthumous pardons for gay men convicted of the same crime.
In a PBS feature titled ‘8 things you didn’t know about Alan Turing’, it noted that he was also an Olympic-level runner, who embodied some values of the Hippie movement. Turing got bad grades as a child and frustrated his teachers, with one saying,
“I can forgive his writing, though it is the worst I have ever seen, and I try to view tolerantly his unswerving inexactitude and slipshod, dirty, work, inconsistent though such inexactitude is in a utilitarian; but I cannot forgive the stupidity of his attitude towards sane discussion on the New Testament.”
Turing, who spoke with a stutter, also liked to dabble in other professional fields such as physics, biology, chemistry and neurology, and developed a new field of biology – morphogenesis – out of his fascination with daisies.
Despite laws at the time preventing Turing from being openly gay, he never kept his sexuality secret and was open with his social circles at Kings College in Cambridge.
In 1952, when he was arrested and charged with “indecency” after a brief relationship with another man – the conviction which would later result in him having to undergo forced chemical castration – Turin refused to deny the charges.
“When he was arrested, the first thing he said was he thought that this shouldn’t be against the law,” reports reveal. “He gave a statement that was unapologetic, that detailed what had happened.”
After his chemical castration, which involved a series of hormone injections, Turing was left impotent.
It also caused gynecomastia, giving him breasts. But Turing refused to let the treatment sway him from his work and maintained an upward spirit.
“He dealt with it with as much humor and defiance as you could muster,” Andrew Hodges, author of “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, the biography which inspired 2014 movie, said.
“To his close friends, it was obvious it was traumatic. But in no way did he just succumb and decline. He really fought back … by insisting on continuing work as if nothing had happened.”
In 2021, a new design for the British £50 note was unveiled by the Bank of England, bearing Turing’s picture and legacy.
The bank’s governor, Andrew Bailey, said ‘He was a leading mathematician, developmental biologist, and a pioneer in the field of computer science. He was also gay, and was treated appallingly as a result. By placing him on our new polymer £50 banknote, we are celebrating his achievements, and the values he symbolises.’
The new note (which is the highest value in the Sterling currency) was released into national circulation on June 23rd, which would have been Turing’s birthday.