In celebration of LGBT History Month, Touchstone is profiling a different LGBT celebrity each week in the month of February. This week, we have chosen the scientist Alan Turing, recently voted the most “iconic” global figure of the 20th century in a BBC 2 viewers’ poll.
Alan Mathison Turing OBE FRS (23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher and theoretical biologist. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Despite these accomplishments, he was never fully recognised during his lifetime due to being a gay man which was then a crime in the UK.
During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre that produced ultra intelligence. For a time he led Hut 8, the section that was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Here he devised a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine.
Turing played a pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic, and in so doing helped win the war.
Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for “homosexual acts” for which he accepted chemical castration treatment, as an alternative to prison.
In 2009, following an Internet campaign, the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way Alan Turing was treated”. Queen Elizabeth II also granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013. The Alan Turing law is now an informal term for a 2017 law in the United Kingdom that retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts.
In nominating Turing for BBC “icon” honour, Dr Chris Packham said of him: “a genius, a saviour, but he was also autistic and gay so we betrayed him and drove him to suicide. Shame. Writ large his death, an unforgiving tattoo on humanity’s conscious.”