Over half a century after Alan Turing died in an apparent suicide following his conviction for “gross indecency,” Queen Elizabeth II pardoned him on December 24.
Turing was a genius whose code-breaking skills contributed greatly to informing Ally intelligence during World War II, helped create the field of computing, and created theories around what defines artificial intelligence so far ahead of their time we still use them today—but none of that saved him from being convicted under Britain’s indecency law.
He refused to hide his sexuality, and when his relationship with another man was discovered in 1952, he lost his security clearance, was put under surveillance by local authorities, and forced to submit to what was effectively chemical castration via estrogen treatment.
Turing died from cyanide poisoning in 1954—less than a decade after his groundbreaking work on the Enigma code, the cipher Nazi Germany used to encrypt its military communications, gave the Allies the edge they needed to defeat the Axis powers.
The author of the Turing biography The Man Who Knew Too Much, David Leavitt, said “It could be argued and it has been argued that he shortened the war, and that possibly without him the Allies might not have won the war. That’s highly speculative, but I don’t think his contribution can be underestimated. It was immense.”
His contributions before and after the war were also considerable; ideas that he formulated led to the first computers, and he created some of the first programs for same, including one of the earliest electronic chess games.
Turing’s fascination with artificial intelligence (AI) also led him to realize that such would one day be able to challenge human minds; he created the Turing Test, introduced in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which is still used today as a measure of determining whether or not a program has the ability to truly think.
For decades, Turing’s contributions to the war effort were kept secret; but, as time passed and his achievements were declassified, and his theories and predictions began coming to fruition, the injustice of what had been done to him became abundantly clear. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology, but some campaigned for a formal pardon, refusing to accept anything less.
“He helped preserve our liberty,” said one such campaigner, British lawmaker Iain Stewart. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said he was delighted with the news of the pardon: “We owed it to him in recognition of what he did for the country — and indeed the free world — that his name should be cleared.”
In a prepared statement, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said, “Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind,” described his treatment as unjust, and said that Turing “deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science.”
One several memorials to Turing, in Manchester, England, is located between the University of Manchester, where he used to work, and the Canal Street gay village.
The memorial’s plaque reads:
Alan Mathison Turing
1912 – 1954
Father of Computer Science,
Victim of Prejudice
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture.” – Bertrand Russell