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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  1. The most famous and most important student of my amazing teacher, Alonzo Church, Alan Turing contributed enormously not only to intellectual history (the Church-Turing thesis, Turing machines, the Turing test), but to the history of humanity (computers, & defeating the Nazis in WWII). He continues to impact our daily lives. Hats off and a salute to this great human being.

  2. To Craig James who write the excellent piece about Mr Turing. ….I have a story to share with you about what the Mormon “church” (Aka cult) did to me. I have been a victim of their PR machine and their media power for 41 years due to a press HOAX they have desseminated since 1977. Can you help me clear my name ? And I am looking for a film producer to help me make a feature film on my story. I am considered the most famous woman in British press phone number is 503 267 5977. Please call anytime after 1 pm. it

  3. America is heading into this direction thanks to evangelicals and their control over Trump and his minions. How long will it be before being transgender or gay will be a criminal act? We are already losing our civil rights.

  4. While I support the sentiments of everyone who posted here, there are some facts missing.
    For starters, the premise, that he committed suicide rather than accept the chemical castration is simply false. He accepted chemical castration rather than serve a minimum prison sentence. The death was later. This is also considerable evidence that his death was accidental. Sure, it makes a better story if he actually killed himself over this, but that simply might not be the case.

    • Hi Bob, I appreciate the fact that you are trying to "point" us to some missing facts on this case, however I do think that, rather, you are missing the much bigger point. In fact, why does it matter that he accepted castration in the first place when the bigger question should be why did he have to make that choice. Furthermore, if you were to read the article, it clearly states that his homosexuality came to life after an investigation in 1952 and he committed suicide in 1954, I believe it hardly implies that he committed suicide because of it. and at the end of the day, his death was ruled a suicide, what could or could not have been is speculative at best.

    • Agreed. There is evidence his death was accidental. It was common through the 50's and until the 80s to view gay men as sad, suicidal beings and this view most likely contributed to the idea he took his own life.


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