Several of my readers have pointed out that Alan Turing has just received a pardon of his conviction for “gross indecency,” a conviction that is generally regarded to have led to his death by apparent suicide. I blogged about Turing’s massive impact on the world about a year ago. The Guardian story is more complete than at least most of the US coverage.
Turing was considered to be the father of modern computer science and was most famous for his work in helping to create the “bombe” that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. He was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 after admitting a sexual relationship with a man.
He was given experimental chemical castration as a “treatment”. His criminal record resulted in the loss of his security clearance and meant he was no longer able to work for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), where he had been employed following service at Bletchley Park during the war. He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, aged 41.
Announcing the pardon, Grayling said: “Dr Alan Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind. His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the second world war, where he was pivotal to breaking the Enigma code, helping to end the war and save thousands of lives.
“His later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed.“
Maybe I am missing something, but I find it a little disturbing that some folks do not see the point, regarding this as a “rule of law” issue — although the quotes below make some interesting points for the future.
There was mixed reaction to the announcement. Iain Standen, chief executive of the Bletchley Park Trust, said Turing was “a visionary mathematician and genius whose work contributed enormously both to the outcome of the war and the computer age”.
He added: “The pardon gives further recognition for his outstanding contribution not only to second world war codebreaking but also the development of computing.”
Dr Andrew Hodges, tutorial fellow in mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford, and author of the acclaimed biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, said: “Alan Turing suffered appalling treatment 60 years ago and there has been a very well intended and deeply felt campaign to remedy it in some way. Unfortunately, I cannot feel that such a ‘pardon’ embodies any good legal principle. If anything, it suggests that a sufficiently valuable individual should be above the law which applies to everyone else.
“It’s far more important that in the 30 years since I brought the story to public attention, LGBT rights movements have succeeded with a complete change in the law – for all. So, for me, this symbolic action adds nothing.
“A more substantial action would be the release of files on Turing’s secret work for GCHQ in the cold war. Loss of security clearance, state distrust and surveillance may have been crucial factors in the two years leading up to his death in 1954.”
P.S. If the point sought to be made above was that all such convictions should be expurgated, I agree.