World War II codebreaker Alan Turing has received an official pardon from Britain’s queen, going some way to remedy his treatment by the state after they prosecuted him for being homosexual.
The pardon is somewhat special for the fact that it comes from Queen Elizabeth II and not from parliament. The pardon says:
WHEREAS Alan Mathison Turing at Knutsford Quarter Sessions on the 31st day of March 1952 pleaded guilty to and was convicted of divers counts of Gross Indecency contrary to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 and on that date sentence was postponed for a period of twelve months but the said Alan Mathison Turing was placed on Probation for a period of twelve months to submit for treatment by a duly qualified medical practitioner at Manchester Royal Infirmary;
AND WHEREAS the said Alan Mathison Turing died on the 7th day of June 1954;
Now know ye that we, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented to us, are graciously pleased to grant our grace and mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and grant him our free pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”
AND to pardon and remit unto him the sentence imposed on him aforesaid;
The posthumous pardon, called a Royal Prerogative of Mercy and requested by Justice Minister Chris Grayling, recognizes Turing as a figure of great historical importance. More than that, it officially addresses that the state did Turing an injustice by convicting him for homosexual acts in 1952 and pushing him toward chemical castration. It is widely believed (though not necessarily a settled matter) that Turing took his own life two years later, in part due to the treatment he received at the hands of a government for which he had worked so hard.
Turing is of course best remembered as a figure who was highly influential in Britain’s World War II effort to crack the German enigma code. Turing’s conviction meant that he subsequently lost his security clearance and was practically cut off from the official work in which he’d been involved. This, as well as the female hormones used to castrate him, is said to have taken a great toll on his mental health.
Turing’s work encompassed more than just his codebreaking, though. He is largely (but not solely) responsible for formalizing concepts like the “algorithm,” and for devising the Turing machine which is considered a model of a general purpose computer.
Turing’s genius did not stop there, either. While working at Manchester University, he became interested in mathematical biology, and went on to write papers on the chemical basis of what’s known as “morphogenesis,” or the processes that causes an animal to develop its shape. Turing made predictions that it would take others more than a decade to prove, but on many counts his predictions were proved right.
Campaigners have sought to have Turing pardoned for a number of years now, with the issue gaining prominence in 2009 and again in 2012. As a result, a private members bill was introduced into parliament to remove Turing’s conviction, but it stalled in the House of Commons. The Royal pardon bypasses parliament, and has been greeted warmly by campaigners as an important tool to right a historical wrong.
“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,” Mr Grayling is quoted as saying.†”Turing deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”
The Royal Pardon went into effect on Christmas Eve.
However, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who campaigned alongside fellow humanists like Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins for Turing’s pardon, has said that the pardon shouldn’t end with Turing.
Tatchell points out that there were at least 50,000 other men who were convicted under the same laws used to prosecute Turing. While the Conservative-led British government passed a bill to scrub historical Gross Indecency convictions for those men who are still alive today, those like Turing who died before the law came into force are still on record as criminals. Tatchell and others of a similar mind argue that they too should have their convictions expunged.
Tatchell has also called for a fresh inquiry into Turing’s death, saying that the investigation undertaken at the time was neither thorough nor conclusive:
“The security services would have been very fearful that Turing was vulnerable to blackmail and anxious that he might pass information to the Soviets, as did the British nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs, who was convicted in 1950 of assisting the Soviet Unionís atomic programme. There was an irrational, paranoid fear that other leading scientists might also aid the Soviets. Although there is no evidence that Turing was murdered by state agents, the fact that this possibility has never been investigated is a major failing.
“The original inquest into his death was perfunctory and inadequate. Although it is said that he died from eating an apple laced with cyanide, the allegedly fatal apple was never tested for cyanide. A new inquiry is long overdue, even if only to dispel any doubts about the true cause of his death. Turing was regarded as a high security risk because of his homosexuality and his expert knowledge of codebreaking, advanced mathematics and computer science.”
Tatchell does not appear to suggest there was a cover-up, only that Turing’s legacy means a definitive answer must be found as to what caused Turing’s death and the circumstances surrounding it.