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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138 COMMENTS

  1. Since when is prior acts of heroism a defense to criminal charges? If Captain Sully were to commit a murder, it matters not that he saved an entire plane full of passengers once (at least in the guilt phase; such things can be considered in sentencing).

    • And what criminal charges are you referring to?? the only crime that is described in the article is the one committed by his gay lover and an accomplice, not by Alan himself; that is, of course, unless you consider homosexuality a crime. BTW isn't it funny how, if we considered your example, Sully was able to accomplish such an extraordinary act using instruments as GPS, computer navigation and others, all equipment based on Alan's work and research

    • This seems a very odd response, indicating that you consider there to have been a criminal act involved, rather than an atrocity masking as one.

  2. Appears to me The USA entered the war and alongside Russia and Commonwealth forces destroyed the rise of Hitler and The Japanese. Btuttain was faring badly until USA turned up with superior arms, ships and planes. Jus sayn.

  3. Just a point, USA DID NOT entered the war along Russia and "commonwealth" forces, United States, although offering some support to England before hand, was not involved on the War until the Pearl Harbour attack on December 1941, that is a full 2 years after the war in Europe was declared (1939) and after Russia was invaded on June 1941. Also, the USA did not "turned up" with superior arms, ships and planes; at the time, the defence of Britain was being conducted by using British made Hurricane MK1 and the Spitfire MK1 (sometimes built in Canada) both remarkable fighter planes still being used today, also some, if not most of the destroyers and frigates being used on the North Atlantic, were built on Canada. With regards to Britain "faring badly" until the USA turned up, well that's debatable, Britain had resisted Hitler's plans to invade for two years before the USA decided to enter the war and the United Kingdom was engaged against the Axis forces in all three fronts; Europe, Asia and Africa. Lastly, I imagine that what you are referring as the Commonwealth, is, in fact an organization representing the United Kingdom and former nations under British rule, created by England, I fail to understand how could you say that Britain was fearing badly but the commonwealth forces destroyed the rise of Hitler and the Japanese (not to mention all other countries in the axes, namely, Italy, Hungary and Romania). As for anything else that Hollywood would have you believe…. well here are some fine examples: It was Canadians (the Royal Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles as well as the Queens Own Rifles of Toronto to be precise), the only elements to advance further inland towards their objective during Operation Overlord, as well as, Canadians and British troops are celebrated as the true liberators o Holland during operation Garden Market, not as described in "A Bridge too Far".

    • Bravo! And I am an America (albeit ashamed to admit it at the present time). Many citizens in this country are ill-informed on historical matters, or use Hollywood as their fact base. I salute our British allies and hope for a better future beginning November, 2020.

    • Well said; I’m tired of U.S.A. repeatedly saying, ‘when we won the war’.They need to look at themselves & put their very scary house in order. They’re going backwards, & are not the super power that they perceive themselves to be.

  4. The British Government headed by Winston Churchill could have raised the issue then to spare the great genius and hero of WW II.

    • I believe all none military personnel during WW2 had to sign the Official Secrets Act, Churchill may not have even heard of this man nor his colleagues. It’s only after possibly 50 years have passed that the paperwork on all these people became available.

    • He might of been bisexual or this woman may have been a “beard” something to hide the fact that Mr. Turing was gay.

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