Kieran Tapsell. Facing prejudice.

Piedad Bonnett, El Espectador, Colombia 5 November 2013

Summary: Alan Turing was responsible for breaking the German enigma code in the Second World War. He was subsequently convicted of the crime of homosexuality, and given a choice of being chemically castrated or imprisoned.  He chose the former and then committed suicide.  The Queen has recently “pardoned” him posthumously.

When, in 1952, the British mathematician, Alan Turing was threatened with choosing prison or oestrogen treatment to “cure” his homosexuality, the freethinking atheist, who openly admitted his sexual preferences to investigating police, risking public derision, chose what was in effect chemical castration that left him impotent, deformed his body and caused him serious psychiatric problems.

Two years later, at 41, and at the height of his powers, Turing was found dead in his bed, and by his side was a half-eaten apple impregnated with cyanide. The Coroner ruled it was suicide.

This cruel sentence, paradoxically, led public opinion, and the English press to start to protest about the continual persecution, convictions, and even executions of homosexuals. These protests ended up with the 1957 Wolfenden Report that declared that these people were not sick, and recommended that homosexual practices amongst adults cease to be considered crimes. It was already too late, unfortunately for the mathematician.

Alan Turing was such a brilliant, versatile and exceptional character that he has become a feature of novels and a play, Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code and several biographies and countless speculations, including the hypothesis that he was assassinated.

His place in history has much to do with the term that seems familiar to us today: artificial intelligence. In a famous article published in 1936, Turing put forward the real possibility of making a computing machine.

This idea was put into practical effect during the Second World War with the British Intelligence Division with the design of the “Turing Machine”. It used combined calculus, and managed to decipher the secret codes of the Enigma machine that sent instructions to German submarines attacking the allied forces.

As well as all that, he was known to have liked writing “haikus”, that he was a notable athlete and that he invented morphogenesis, a discipline that brought together mathematics and biology to decipher why animal markings were the way they were. He must have been very curious to have wanted to know, scientifically, why zebras have stripes.

Turing is recognized as a genius by the scientific community and as a notorious example of how moral cheer leaders have historically damaged innocent people for the mere fact of being homosexual.

On 24 December 2013, Queen Elizabeth of England, pressured by a section of public opinion exercised her Royal Prerogative of Mercy, pardoning Turing posthumously. Although the terms of the decree are completely ridiculous – there is nothing to pardon Turing for – the decision has a very important symbolic effect.

It makes us realised that the law is often bound up with religious or social prejudice and that very probably there are some things that today we pursue furiously – like cultivating coca, for example, – that tomorrow, after much blood and suffering, will be accepted without scandal.


Guest blogger, Kieran Tapsell drew to my attention some good writing from Colombia on issues of international importance. Kieran is a Spanish  translator.  I hope you enjoy something a little different. John Menadue


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