Monday, 5 March 2012

Alan Turing

When I was doing some exam invigilation recently at the University of Surrey, I was struck by a larger than life-sized statue of a man, laden with books, striding across the large piazza between the main car park and he university buildings. The name identifying him gave me a start: I knew it well.

I first came across the name Alan Turing during my cursory explorations of theoretical computer science, a discipline that some would say, depending on your perspective of the subject, he largely invented. during the war, he was something of a British hero, for his work on codes and code breaking. He invented the methods to crack the codes behind the German enigma machine, thus opening the door for British intelligence to German military secrets. For this work he has sometimes been described as one of the “secret heroes” of WWII.
But I had also seen his name in the press much more recently, when Gordon Brown apologised, on behalf of the British people, for their treatment of him. Alan Turing was gay. For that, the British could not forgive him and punished him cruelly, in spite of his immeasurable contribution to the war effort, and his major part in the development of the computer age which has transformed our lives.
This account is taken from "Alan Turing, Secret Hero"in "Out of the Past” by Neil Miller:
Turing was a homosexual at a time when it was very dangerous to be Christmas 1951, he met Arnold Murray, a nineteen year-old working-lass youth, and began a brief affair. A month later, a friend of Murray’s burgled Turing’s apartment, with Murray’s knowledge. During the course of the investigation, whether out of naivete, fear or arrogance, Turing admitted that he and Murray had had sex together. In February 1952, Turing was arrested on charges of “gross indecency”, punishable by two years in prison. He and Murray were among 2,109 men against whom charges were brought that year for homosexual offences.
The two men went on trial in April 1952….Turing was placed on probation, on condition that he consented to undergo an experimental medical treatment known as “organo-therapy”. He was to injected with female hormones for a year, in an effort to reduce his libido. After the treatment, he confided to a friend, he expected to return to normal. An additional problem, however, was that the treatment would cause him to grow breasts.
There were further difficulties later. He found unexpected professional difficulties blocking his career and was banned from cryptoanalytic work , because in the paranoid national atmosphere of the 1950’s, it was believed that his sexuality made his national loyalty suspect. A Norwegian friend, a subject of a friendly nation, was not permitted to visit him.
On June 7, 1954 Alan Turing killed himself.
In September 2009, fifty five years later, Gordon Brown apologised (in response to a petition) for the "appalling" way in which Britain had treated a war-hero. I have not seen any similar apology to any others, not necessarily war heroes, who received similar "treatment" for their "crimes" of homosexual love.

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