Alan Turing: Gay Man who Saved the World yet Died in Disgrace

By Craig A. James | 19 November 2010
The Religion Virus

What do you do to a homosexual mathematician whose code-breaking genius saved the world during World War II? Not figuratively, but actually saved the world from Nazi domination? You put him on trial, of course! You convict him of gross indecency. You force him to choose prison or chemical castration. You strip him of all dignity and hound him until in shame and despair he swallows a cyanide pill and dies.

The story of Alan Turing is one of the most disgraceful episodes of modern civilization. A man who should have been a hero of the free world and idolized next to Einstein and Newton in the history books was instead hounded to death because of religion-inspired homophobia.

In World War II, Alan Turing’s genius at breaking Nazi secret codes was so successful that the Allies could have sunk almost every single U-boat and convoy that left Germany. Turing’s work was so good it was like cheating at cards: if you win every hand, the other players will quickly figure out that the game is rigged. The Allies had to employ all sorts of tricks to hide their success; if you want a fascinating account, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson’s semi-fictional Cryptonomicon, the story of the rise of modern cryptography.

Alan Turing literally saved the world from Nazi domination. Without his work, WWII would have ended very differently. The Nazi regime might have remained undefeated, still in control of Northern Europe and western Asia. The Japanese might have retained control of East Asia. Our world maps would look vastly different today. And even if we’d won the war, without Turing’s work it’s likely that millions more soldiers and civilians would have died in the fight.

And Turing’s work didn’t end with cryptography. Today he’s best known as the inventor of the modern digital computer, the one who laid down the mathematical foundation for all computer science. His name is even enshrined in two of the most important computer-science concepts, the Turing machine and the Turing test.

If Alan Turing hadn’t been homosexual, his name might be a household word like Einstein, Newton and Galileo. What home doesn’t have a computer? If you count the laptops, cell phones, digital TVs, iPods, digital cameras and microwave ovens in your home, I’ll bet you own more than a dozen computing devices. Every one of them works on the principles laid down by Alan Turing during WWII when he was trying to develop a computing machine to break the enemy’s codes even faster.

Turing’s fall from grace came at the hands of the religious commi-bashing right, the British equivalent of America’s McCarthyism. In 1952 a gay lover helped an accomplice rob Turing’s house. During the police investigation, it came out that Turing was a homosexual. He was arrested and convicted of gross indecency, and given a choice of prison or chemical castration. Turing choose castration.

On June 7, 1954, at just forty two years of age, Alan Mathison Turing killed himself by swallowing cyanide. One of the greatest minds in the history of humankind was lost forever, and one of the greatest heroes of World War II died in shame and disgrace.

But the real shame is on the rest of us, not Alan Turing. In spite of his sexual orientation and consequent hardships he must have experienced, he remained a true patriot and mathematician. He put his mind to work to save the very society that persecuted him. It is possible that he changed history and saved more lives than any other single person in the twentieth century.

On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a public apology to Turing’s memory:

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

It is stories like Turing’s that keep me writing. It’s easy to have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the immoral “morality” of the Bible. It sounds nice to advocate tolerance and respect. But Alan Turing is dead, and the Bible is where it all started.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Craig A. James is a writer, computer scientist, evolutionist, and movie producer. He lives in Southern California.

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53 COMMENTS

  1. He died by accident, he use to eat a apple before he went to bed and he was still working on his machine….it is thought by people working now at bletchley park that he didnt wash his hands and a slow build up of toxic chemicals killed him.

    • Don't waste your time–apparently facts don't matter for this lot. This in spite of the fact that facts mattered a great deal to Mr. Turing.

  2. It was our great grandparents that killed him not us. We don’t have to oppologise for anything we wasn’t even born then. Rule number one -never oppologise for what your fore father’s did. Learn from it but never oppologise.

    • That’s the kind of bullheaded thinking that has allowed the United States to be led by the racist failed businessman with the orange spray tan and dead rat toupee. If all the barriers were removed for blacks in the US it would take over two centuries for them to reach a level of income comparable to the dwindling percentage of fair skinned people. The bank JP Morgan Chase has loan documents in its archives that describe taking human beings in the form of chattel slaves for collateral on a loan. The South got the free labor for raw materials and the North had industry to create finished products and so unpaid forced labor made up 2/3 of the GDP. Wealthy families who profited off of the slaves are still living off the investments and trust funds to this day while the government failed to even come through on 40 acres and a goat. Britain was no better, with its imperialist regime bent on conquering and ruling everything it could to have world dominance. All of us should at least have humility. And, like the Catholic church granting an indulgence to Galileo in 1996 after excommunication from the church for saying the earth went around the sun, it is proper for an entity to publicly state that it acted improperly so as to set public policy and work towards enlightenment. The aforementioned blacks in the US are probably owed a lot when adjusted for inflation but most would settle for a lack of constant discrimination and institutional racism that leads to our incarceration nation.

      • Dude that’s some thought provoking info. It makes me think about what Tupac said on one of his tracks. “Where’s the restitution stipulated in the constitution? ” I believe that we have to fight for it man.

  3. It wasn’t just Mr. Turing who was discriminated against by Christian influencers in British society. Women also experienced workplace harassment (sexual and otherwise) and were shut out of mathematical andscientific careers. Look them up. If you have access to PBS programs online, I highly recommend the Bletchley Circle, a true accounting of a group of code-breakers during and just after World War 2. While Turing developed the machine and its encoding algorithms, these women were secretly responsible for breaking its language apart, saving the UK millions of lives (while risking theirs), and their government, while conducting their traditional everyday lives outwardly to their families, friends and the public.

  4. It is tragic that such a brilliant man suffered what he went through. Religion gives Christianity a decided stink. It is not my place or anyone else’s to judge him. Too many so-called christians feel duty-bound to take GOD’s place in judgement when a person’s life issues become public knowledge. People trash the bible due to a feeling of superiority and/or a lack of understanding it’s underlying purpose. You don’t believe GOD’s inspired word? Fine… I’m not your judge. My words or logic offend you? Why? Your viewpoints and logic don’t offend me. I am a devout christian, not a religous bigot or zealot. I sin on a daily basis, same as you. Do I have a superiority complex? Not for all the riches on earth! The only real confidence I have is I know GOD is real… my very existence is unrefutable proof. The CHRIST died for my sins. Only GOD can judge me. Only GOD can judge you. I freely accepted the gift of salvation prepared for me. Only you can choose to do likewise. To reference the Bible, it says ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.’ All I need do is share the good news (gospel) that Christ died for all of our sins… debt paid. Funny how often JESUS healed people who were far less than perfect- you know- like me n you. He told people to go and sin no more. He didn’t curse people out, stone them, or shame them. He showed love n compassion. That’s what He does for me. That’s what He does for you. Love the sinner (us) hate the sin. That’s the good news I want to share. For terrible things like rape, murder and the like which really do need some earthly authority for punishing, that has to be. Me, better than you? Never! GOD’s love better than what we deserve? Absolutely! Please never take religion for christianity. They aren’t even in the same universe. GOD bless you on your walk.

  5. "But the real shame is on the rest of us, not Alan Turing." I have no shame over what happened to Alan Turing. He died years before I was born. Who tries to blame the unborn for something that already happened? What is your agenda? I have none. I treat people with dignity and respect up until the point they demonstrate they don't deserve either.

  6. The last sentence of this piece blames the Bible. I know of nothing in the Bible that countenances laws requiring castration, etc. The Bible forbids sex outside of a heterosexual marriage. It does not provide worldly punishments.

  7. Don’t EVER blame the Bible for something that poorly informed people do. Who gave people the right to judge, when, God is the only true judge. Those folks that judged Turing
    Were NOT real Christians period!!

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