History is full of notable figures who did the kind of work that shaped the future – take, for example, Alan Turing.
Born in London, England in 1912, Turing made major contributions to the mathematical, logistic, and analytic fields, as well as with computer science, cognitive science, and artificial life and intelligence. He studied at the University of Cambridge in the early 1930s and earned his Ph.D. in mathematical logistics from Princeton University in 1938 after having his research published in America. Upon finishing his education, he joined the Government Code and Cypher School in England in 1938.
World War II began soon after (September 1939) and Turing moved to their wartime headquarters in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire in the same year. Turing’s work changed the course of the war because he and his fellow colleagues developed a way to decode Nazi messages; by early 1942, they were intercepting roughly 39,000 messages per month. After the war, he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his decoding work.
In 1945, Turing was recruited to the National Physical Laboratory in London to work on the first electronic computer. He was responsible for writing the first-ever computer programming manual in 1951 that was used in the Ferranti Mark I, which was the first marketable electronic computer. He also wrote theories and research in regard to artificial life and intelligence. Later that year, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London.
A Turning Point
Alan Turing’s life took a major turn in early 1952 when he was arrested and convicted of “gross indecency”, which was introduced into the British legal code in 1885 and removed in 1967. This charge was used to prosecute gay men in instances where sodomy could not be proven. Instead of going to jail, Turing volunteered for chemical castration, which they called “hormone therapy”. They did this by giving him Stilboestrol, a pill containing female hormones.
Doctors believed that the natural male hormone of testosterone increases sex drive, so using female hormones was meant to counteract that and lower the sex drive, if not eliminate it entirely. This was likely successful in Turing, but Stilboestrol comes with mental side effects, such as depression, bipolar disorder, behavioral disorders, and schizophrenia.
The mental risks of Stilboestrol could explain Turing’s death in 1952, which was ruled a suicide. He died of cyanide poisoning with a half-eaten apple on his bedside table. The theory is that he injected an apple with cyanide and ate it to commit suicide.
Another theory is that the poisoning was not his own work, but that he was actually murdered. In the 1950s, homosexuals were considered social deviants and dangers to society, Turing even more so because he worked for the British government for many years and could have been considered a threat to national security. There is no evidence to support this theory.
One other theory is that his death was completely accidental. Turing had a small laboratory off his bedroom and it was possible that he could have accidentally inhaled cyanide while working there.
His Enduring Legacy – The Alan Turing Law
After the 1952 conviction, Turing was no longer allowed to work for the government, but he continued his own research and writings. In 2013, some of Turing’s relatives led a very public campaign in favor of pardoning tens of thousands of men who were convicted of homosexuality. Turing was given a posthumous royal pardon by Queen Elizabeth II that same year, and the British government proposed the Alan Turing Law in 2016 to pardon the other men. The British government has apologized for their treatment of Alan Turing and countless others, which proves that a major civilized power is capable of changing laws and national opinions.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a time where being gay was punishable by jail time. It’s important to remember the people who suffered in a time before we had the rights and freedoms we have now, like Alan Turing and so many others.