The Heroic Life And Tragic Death Of Alan Turing

Alan Turing was one of the world’s greatest geniuses. He basically invented the modern computer and was instrumental in helping end WWII, even though he never set foot on a battlefield. The Germans had invented the ultimate message coding device, the Enigma machine, and if the Allies wanted to take down Hitler, they were going to need to figure it out. Fortunately, there was Alan Turing’s code breaking park, Bletchley, where he and others achieved movie-worthy feats. In fact, it did make a great film, The Imitation Game, released in 2014 and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the man himself.

The problem was (that is, the "problem" according to the 1950s Western world), Turing was gay. Despite his brilliance, what happened to Alan Turing is one of history's great tragedies. His life was one great achievement after another, until 1950s prejudices put an end to them.

Photo: user uploaded image

  • His Homosexuality Almost Landed Him In Jail

    In the 1950s, being homosexual was illegal in the United Kingdom. Despite knowing this, Turing was almost naive about how open he could be about his sexual orientation. When he was 39, he started a relationship with a 19-year-old drifter named Arnold Murray. Murray then burgled Turing’s house, who then reported it to the police. His gay relationship emerged during the investigation, and Turing was arrested for “gross indecency.”

    This was the same law that Oscar Wilde had been tried under in the 1800s. In conservative post-war Britain, lots of people were arrested under this Draconian law. Turing was convicted and given an option: he could go to prison or be put on a treatment of female hormones. He chose the latter.

  • Despite His War-Hero Status, The British Government Chemically Castrated Him
    Photo: The Imitation Game / The Weinstein Company

    Despite His War-Hero Status, The British Government Chemically Castrated Him

    Turing had been instrumental in helping win WWII, but when it came to his conviction that didn’t matter in the slightest. Being gay was just seen as too big a crime. He avoided jail, but was put on probation and had to start taking estrogen pills. This was, in effect, chemical castration. The severity of Turing's punishment provides a window into how 1950s Britain thought of homosexuality. In 1952, the same year Turing was arrested, a “progressive” tabloid published an article calling gay men, among other things, “freaks," framing gay people as a problem that something needed to be done about.

    There were a lot of downsides to the hormone treatment. Its goal was to make gay people straight, but in reality it just made Turing grow breasts and become impotent. It could also act as a depressant. However, while The Imitation Game shows Turing as broken by his punishment, in reality he kept working on various projects.

  • He Most Likely Took His Own Life Using A Cyanide-Laced Apple
    Photo: Joseph Birr-Pixton / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    He Most Likely Took His Own Life Using A Cyanide-Laced Apple

    While Turing put on a brave face, inside he was suffering. Unable to be himself, his thoughts turned to ending his life. He was found on June 8, 1954, by his cleaner. Turing had eaten half of an apple that was laced with cyanide. The coroner ruled he had killed himself. There is an urban legend that this inspired the Apple logo with a bite taken out, but this isn’t true.

    But there may be more to this story. Friends of Turing, along with his mother, thought he might have killed himself accidentally. They claimed he hadn’t seemed depressed in the days and weeks leading up to his death. There was also the fact that he had been experimenting with cyanide in a personal laboratory before he died. Rather than think he could have used this poison to deliberately taint the apple, they thought that he had accidently gotten some on it and died.

    There is another, even more interesting theory. Some people think that the British government was still concerned that he would be forced to leak secrets because of his then well-known sexual orientation and that they poisoned him on purpose. We may never know the truth, since he did not leave a suicide note.

  • His Homosexuality Was Considered A Possible Security Breach
    Photo: The Imitation Game / The Weinstein Company

    His Homosexuality Was Considered A Possible Security Breach

    Turing was able to continue his work after the war ended. WWII was over, but the Cold War started immediately, and code breaking was still an important skill. He was paid the then huge sum of 5,000 pounds a year to work for the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.

    His triumph was short-lived. The US and UK were working closely when it came to government intelligence, and America had even harsher attitudes toward homosexuality than England. The US thought there was the chance that any homosexual man could be honey-trapped and forced to share information on pains of being outed. When Turing was arrested, he lost his security clearance, effectively losing his job. He told one friend how angry this made him.

  • Despite His Sexual Orientation, He Almost Married A Woman
    Photo: The Imitation Game / The Weinstein Company

    Despite His Sexual Orientation, He Almost Married A Woman

    Turing knew he was gay from a young age. We know this because he developed feelings for a friend when he was in school. The boy’s name was Christopher, and while they were good friends, Turing's feelings were not reciprocated. Turing later wrote that while his friend knew how he felt, he “hated him showing it.” Nevertheless, both were geeks, and they bonded over stuff like math and chemistry. Unfortunately, Christopher died very young, and Turing was devastated.

    When he started working at code-breaking central Bletchley Park during WWII, Turing was pretty open about his sexuality. Regardless, at one point, he actually proposed to his good friend Joan Clarke. They did lots of fun things together, like go on dates to see movies, but she was still shocked when he asked her to marry him. She said yes, but the next day they went for a walk, and he admitted to her that he had “homosexual tendencies.” She was concerned, since she thought this was something “permanent,” but she didn’t end the engagement. That would happen later when Turing broke it off.

  • He Couldn’t Tell Anyone What He Had Done During The War
    Photo: Antoine Taveneaux / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    He Couldn’t Tell Anyone What He Had Done During The War

    If Turing was such a war hero, why was he treated so badly afterwards? Part of it came down to the fact that he couldn’t actually tell anyone what he had achieved during the conflict. Everyone who had worked at Bletchley Park was sworn to secrecy. They couldn’t even discuss what they were doing with their immediate families. Some of them died still keeping the secret. The truth about how much they had achieved was only still emerging well into the 21st century.

    This meant that when Turing was arrested for being gay, he couldn’t tell the cops that he was the “savior of England,” the guy who Winston Churchill had said made the single biggest contribution to ending the war. Instead, they just treated him like some kind of pervert, and that was it. Perhaps his punishment would have been less dire if he could have told people what he had achieved.