How a Brilliant Wartime Mathematician and Code Breaker Was Driven to Suicide by Prejudice

How very sad it is when the prejudices of a society result in the promulgation of harsh laws within a system of justice which results in persons being treated most unjustly. Often the sentence imposed for the “crime” had widespread ramifications of devastating proportions. Just so is the tale of a renowned mathematician, the man often called the father of the modern computer, Alan Mathison Turing.

Turing was born on 23rd June 1912 of parents who, fairly typical of the time, travelled between England and India for most of his early life. He thus lived mostly with foster parents and at various boarding schools so he did not experience an ordinary family life. He was not much of a scholar but interested in science and mathematics, which was an embarrassment to his parents – for gentlemen of the time were required to study the classics and languages. It was only when he went to Kings College that he finally found the comfort of being accepted and experienced a sense of belonging.

Passport photo of Alan Turing at aged 16.
Passport photo of Alan Turing at aged 16.

Turing was usually casually dressed and often looked rather scruffy. He chewed his nails and tended to stutter although those who knew him well noted that it seemed he used to think carefully before he spoke. At college, he enjoyed rowing and sailing.

He became a very good marathon runner and won a number of races. At one of the marathons he ran in 1948, he clocked a time just 11 minutes short of the Olympic winning runners – not a result to be sneezed at. He often used to run the 10 or so miles between his two places of work and explained that “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my head is by running hard

While having a brilliant mathematical mind, and furthering his studies in various areas of physics, biology, chemistry and even neurology, he was also fascinated by Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. However, by far his most far-reaching works were with regard to computer science. He created the universal Turing machine which was the basis of the first computer.

His exceptional expertise at being able to think “out of the box” and his ability to come up with ideas that had not been considered by more logical thinkers, were utilised during the WWII, at Bletchley Park. This secretive centre worked ceaselessly at breaking enemy codes.

Turing was instrumental in the cracking of, amongst others, one of the Nazi’s most damaging encryption codes, the Enigma. This enabled Britain to decode important, strategic German messages, thereby saving thousands of lives, in Europe and of those who were at sea. It is thought to have shortened the war by at least two years.

A complete and working replica of a bombe at the National Codes Centre at Bletchley Park. Photo Credit.
A complete and working replica of a bombe at the National Codes Centre at Bletchley Park. Photo Credit.

By 1950, his work, much of which was aimed at how machines can ‘think’, resulted in the development of a test for artificial intelligence which is still used today. Soon afterwards, he broke new ground in the area of morphogenesis which introduced another field of study – one of mathematical biology. He was an unusually brilliant man.

Then came personal disaster. While Turing had not kept his homosexuality a secret from his close friends and workmates, it was strictly against the law and governed by the Criminal Law amendment Act of 1885. He was arrested in 1952 and charged with indecency, for which he was subsequently convicted, having himself admitted to the charges while insisting that it shouldn’t be against the law.

The sentence imposed was one of chemical castration whereby a series of injections were administered which would cause him to become impotent. It was dreadful enough to be submitted to public humiliation but even worse was to come. Turin, now a convicted homosexual was deemed a security risk and so his Security Clearance was revoked, essentially cutting him off from the passion of his life – his work. It would seem that these two blows were just too much for him to deal with and were probably the reason for his suicide on 7th June 1954, at the age of 42.

Turing by Stephen Kettle at Bletchley Park, commissioned by Sidney Frank, built from half a million pieces of Welsh slate. Photo Credit.
Turing by Stephen Kettle at Bletchley Park, commissioned by Sidney Frank, built from half a million pieces of Welsh slate. Photo Credit.

Society has changed radically from that time and resultantly a number of very old and unjust laws have been changed. “The fact that it was common practice for decades reflected the intolerance of the times … but it does not make it any less wrong and we should apologize for it,” was what Robert Hannigan ( Head of Britain’s digital espionage agency) said in a speech at the conference organised in support of all gays and of their rights.

He apologised for the tremendous damage caused to homosexuals by such policies. In his speech he paid particular tribute to Turing as — “a problem-solver who was not afraid to think differently and radically.”

Turing’s story, as told in the film about him called ‘The Imitation Game’, shows today’s generation just what a genius he was. His Turing Machine has been described as the “foundation of the modern theory of computation and computability. “

Turing was granted a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II, under the “Royal Prerogative of Mercy,” after the request was submitted by Justice Secretary Chris Greyling.   One cannot turn back the clock but one should be glad the Turing memory has been so “cleansed”, even though more than 60 years later.

One wonders, however, what Alan Turing would have achieved and what legacy he would have left the world, had the times been more forgiving and had he lived his life to a ripe old age.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE