Was Alan Turing’s death an accident?

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, a new analysis of the evidence surrounding his death by Prof. Jack Copeland, suggests that it may actually have been accidental and not a suicide by cyanide poisoning as the official inquest had ruled.  Prof. Copeland points to Turing’s penchant for experimentation that once resulted in his receiving several severe electrical shocks.  At the time of his death, he was electrolyzing solutions of cyanide and electroplating spoons with gold, a process that requires potassium cyanide.  The experiment was actually wired into the ceiling light socket (yikes!).  At any rate, Copeland’s arguments are based entirely on the evidence and the evidence actually suggests an accident and not suicide.  It should be noted that both his mother and brother apparently had always felt that the death was accidental (see Hodges’ biography for more, though Hodges himself has suggested the accident scenario was a ruse created by Turing to spare his mother the pain and humiliation).

This, of course, does not excuse the absolutely horrific treatment he had received in the time leading up to his death over his homosexuality.  In fact, he had agreed, a year prior to his death, to chemical castration in an effort to “curb” his homosexual tendencies.  Personally, I find this ironic (not to mention repugnant) given the long history of homosexuality in Britain’s public boarding schools (notably at Eton).  The one problem I have with a lot of commentary on Turing is that it tends to be fairly standard practice to bemoan the injustice of his treatment while noting his extraordinary contributions to mathematics, computer science, and the British war effort, as if those were the reasons he should have been treated differently.  The way in which Alan Turing was treated was reprehensible regardless of who he was.

For example, consider this statement by Lord McNally when denying the petition to posthumously pardon him earlier this year:

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd—particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

The emphasis is mine.  Even now, in 2012, his conviction is viewed in the light of his contributions.  But, then, that is the type of society we live in and, in some ways, have always lived in.  People who are wealthy, famous, powerful, or otherwise stand out from the crowd, apparently deserve better treatment than the rest of humanity (and that doesn’t make me a socialist, by the way – true capitalism doesn’t play favorites).  In 2009, then-PM Gordon Brown apologized for the government’s treatment of Turing.  But, as gay rights activist Peter Tatchell pointed out that nearly 100,000 British men received similar treatment and that “[s]ingling out Turing just because he is famous is wrong.”

There is quite a bit that we can learn from Alan Turing’s life and death, both scientifically and socially.  One can only hope that we pay attention to the latter in addition to the former.


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