British code-breaker Alan Turing has received a royal pardon, almost 60 years subsequent to his suicide. Turing’s homosexuality culminated in the renowned mathematician and computer scientist being subject to criminal prosecution in the early 1950s – a time when homosexual activities were criminalized in the U.K.
Rather than face imprisonment, Turing accepted chemical castration (a.k.a. organo-therapy). Just 16 weeks before his birthday, Turing – who is known for developing the code-breaking machine that deciphered encoded German messages – allegedly committed suicide. The inquest into his death, which was presented in 1954, ruled that he had taken his own life after taking cyanide.
Proponents of Turing’s much-lauded work have tirelessly campaigned for his efforts to be better recognized, alongside official acknowledgement of his persecution following the discovery of his sexual orientation in 1952.
In 2011, an electronic petition was formulated on the Direct Gov website, requesting the British government posthumously pardon Turing for his previous conviction of “gross-indecency.” The petition gained over 37,000 signatures, but failed to gain traction, with justice secretary Lord McNally stating Turing to have been properly convicted of – what was at the time – a criminal offence. Prior to this, in August of 2009, another petition engendered an apology from then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who described the sentencing as “appalling.”
The pardon came into effect on Dec. 24, 2013, and was made official under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.
The 41-year-old mathematician was found dead in his bed. On his bedside table was a half-eaten apple, leading many people to contrast his death to the fairytale story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was suggested the apple was laced with cyanide.
Turing expert Professor Jack Copeland has previously called into question the reliability of the evidence presented during the inquest, however. The apple found next to Turing’s bed was never tested for traces of cyanide. Copeland indicates that Turing habitually took an apple to bed, and he often did not finish eating it.
Another point of contention lies in the finding of a list of tasks. Turing, customarily, left himself an itinerary of activities on his office desk, prior to a looming weekend, reminding him of what he needed to accomplish for the following business week. Many have suggested that this is an unusual and unnecessary action for an individual planning to take their own life.
What is more, in a series of statements to the coroner, many described Turing’s mood as being favorable in the days leading up to his death. It is reported that he hosted a tea party for his neighbor and her son, just four days before his alleged suicide. This contention was substantiated by Turing’s friend, Robin Gandy, who explained that Turing’s mood was, if anything, elevated over the weekend before his demise.
Professor Copeland suggests that Turing had been accidentally poisoned – a theory also posited by his mother. Turing is known to have stored cyanide in his household and used quantities of the poison for chemical experiments. Copeland conjectures that Turing was merely careless when performing an electrolysis experiment, which mandated the use of potassium cyanide. Indeed, it has been suggested that the “nightmare room,” where he conducted many of his experiments, had a strong smell of cyanide after his passing. Copeland maintains – based upon the distribution of poison in Turing’s organs – it is possible he died of inhalation, rather than ingestion.
In light of apparent discrepancies in the investigation into Turing’s death, Copeland even indicates that murder cannot be definitively ruled out. Speaking to BBC News, he recently reflected on the public’s perception of Turing’s life:
“In a way we have in modern times been recreating the narrative of Turing’s life, and we have recreated him as an unhappy young man who committed suicide. But the evidence is not there.”
Human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell recently wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron, urging an inquiry into Turing’s death. Describing the original investigation as “perfunctory and inadequate,” Tatchell briefly ruminates over the possibility that Turing was murdered, in a recent blog post on Huffington Post:
“The security services were certainly fearful that Turing was vulnerable to blackmail and anxious that he might pass information to the Soviets. The British nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs was convicted in 1950 of assisting the Soviet Union’s atomic programme. There was an irrational, paranoid fear that other leading scientists, such as Turing, might also aid the Soviets; in Turing’s case possibly as revenge for the way he’d been mistreated.”
However, Tatchell indicates there is “not a shred of evidence” to suggest Turing was on the brink of betraying the U.K. government, or that the security services had planned to murder him. Nonetheless, he calls for a comprehensive investigation into Turing’s death to determine what role the security services played, if any.
Ultimately, Turing was considered a mathematical mastermind. During World War II, Adolf Hitler’s military operatives considered their German messages – encoded by Enigma machines – to be unbreakable. Turing worked from the code-breaking headquarters in the Bletchley Park estate, situated in the town of Milton Keynes, and was instrumental in cracking German ciphers.
Aside from this, Turing was also considered one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence and computer science. He originally submitted a paper in 1937 that conceptualized the Turing machine – a hypothetical device that could derive a solution to any computable problem, and remains especially useful in elucidating the workings of central processing units of computers.
By James Fenner