An apology for Alan Turing

Written by Ced Kurtz on .

Alan Turing, the British mathematician and Bletchley Park codebreaker, has received a formal apology from the British government for treatment he received in the 1950s after admitting a homosexual relationship.  

Considered by many to be the father of modern computer science, Turing was instrumental in breaking codes used by the Nazis during World War II.  While working in the section responsible for deciphering German naval transmissions, he devised a machine that could determine the rotor settings for the Enigma encoding machine.  This gave the allies an enormous advantage and is widely believed to have shortened the war dramatically.

His post-war work included many designs for computing equipment that could run more than one program without significant physical changes in between.  Known as a "stored-program computer", it revolutionized the concept of data processing, and the computer you are using to read this blog post today is the great, great, great, great, great grandchild of those machines.

In 1952, Turing was convicted of a charge of gross indecency for being an admitted homosexual.  Upon sentencing, he was given a choice between imprisonment or probation, the latter on condition that he agree to hormonal treatments to reduce his libido.  Known as "chemical castration", the process required that he receive estrogen injections over the course of a year. 

Two years later, his cleaner found him dead of an apparent suicide by poisoning.

This past August, a petition circulated on Turing's behalf by British computer programmer John Graham-Cumming gathered more than 30,000 signatures and led to the government's response today by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Brown described Turing's treatment as "horrifying" and "utterly unfair", and said that the country owed Turing a huge debt for his work.  An understatement, to be sure.

Brown's speech ended thusly:

It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. 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.

You can read the full text of Brown's remarks here.



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