U.K. Government Apologizes for Treatment of Alan Turing

Alan Turing created the famous "Turing Test," which is a proposal he made in 1950.  It was designed to be a way of dealing with the question of whether machines "can think." He also helped in the breaking of Germany's Enigma code during WWII. And finally, he was gay, and committed suicide in 1954, two years after first being chemically castrated with female hormones.

Alan Turing was one of the great mathematicians in history. However, in 1952, he was convicted of "gross indecency" for having sex with a man. Turing was then given the choice: prison or "chemical castration, " the injection of female hormones to suppress his libido. At the same time, the U.K. government revoked his security clearance. He was never allowed to work for the government again.



In 1954, Alan Turing killed himself by ingesting a cyanide-laced apple.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for what he called the "appalling" treatment of Alan Turing. The statement came in response to a petition posted on the official Number 10 Downing Street website which has received more than 30,000 signatures in recent months.

Here's the full text of the apology, from the Number 10 Downing Street website:
2009 has been a year of deep reflection - a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

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. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate - by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices - that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. 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.

Gordon Brown
In addition to all the accomplishments noted above, one of the most prestigious honors in computing, the $250,000 Turing Prize, is named for Alan Turing.   Response in the Twittersphere was, in general, positive.  In other forums, such as the BBC's website, reaction was more mixed, with some asserting Brown's motives were political, and others questioning why the apology was limited to one person.

One such example: while welcoming the apology, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said Brown's apology to Turing didn't go far enough.
"A similar apology is also due to the estimated 100,000 British men who were convicted of consenting, victimless same-sex relationships during the 20th century."
Readers, what do you think?


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