In the week that would have seen Alan Turing turn 100, a claim has been made that Turing, who was widely understood to have committed suicide through ingestion of cyanide, may in fact have died accidentally.
This claim was made at a conference in Oxford on Saturday by Turing expert Prof Jack Copeland, Director of The Turing Archive for the History of Computing in New Zealand. Copeland claims that the 1954 inquest into Turing’s death drew unsupported conclusions. Indeed, Copeland argues, it appears at least just as likely that Turing fell victim to an accidental death.
It is widely said that Turing had been haunted by the story of the poisoned apple in the fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and had resorted to the same desperate measure to end the persecution he was suffering as a result of his homosexuality.
But according to Prof Copeland, it was Turing’s habit to take an apple at bedtime, and that it was quite usual for him not to finish it; the half-eaten remains found near his body cannot be seen as an indication of a deliberate act.
Indeed, the police never tested the apple for the presence of cyanide.
Moreover, Prof Copeland emphasises, a coroner these days would demand evidence of pre-meditation before announcing a verdict of suicide, yet nothing in the accounts of Turing’s last days suggest he was in anything but a cheerful mood.
Nevertheless, at the inquest, the coroner, Mr JAK Ferns declared: “In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.” What he meant by “of his type” is unclear.
Prof. Copeland argues that, far from the depressed figure historical biographies have so far painted for us, Turing was in fact enjoying life — despite the persecution he had suffered — as a man at the height of his intellectual powers. Instead, Copeland argues, Turing may have been a victim of his own fervor.
Turing, experimenting with potassium cyanide in a tiny spare room in his house, may have accidentally inhaled cyanide vapors because, even though he was a man of great intellect, he had shown a propensity to be somewhat reckless. Copeland notes that the room in which Turing conducted his experiments, dubbed “the nightmare room,” had a strong odor of cyanide following Turing’s death. He also points out that the distribution of cyanide in Turing’s organs as shown by the inquest was more consistent with inhalation then ingestion.
Copeland is quoted as saying that Turing’s inquest should be reopened, adding, ”It would be a terrific thing to do. I think the nation owes it to Turing, in the Second World War he saved the nation.”
Copeland has stressed however that a focus on Turing’s work, rather than the circumstances of his death, should always be paramount.
During World War II, Turing worked at Britain’s code-breaking center Bletchley Park where he built on existing research to create a number of methods for breaking German ciphers, including his most noted method dubbed “the bombe,” which allowed Britain to crack the Enigma code.
Post war, Turing authored a paper on computational theory that is today credited as the grounding for much of modern computing. Turing also tackled the notion of artificial intelligence and proposed an experiment that became known as the Turing test–a standard by which a machine could be called intelligent. Turing would also go on to write about the chemical basis of morphogenesis, or how patterns form in nature. His contribution to the field is considered seminal.
However, Turing’s life was to abruptly change when in 1952 he faced criminal prosecution for homosexuality. In order to avoid prison, he submitted to chemical castration. Turing found himself ostracized by previous colleagues and entirely shut out of his governmental work. Turing died in 1954, just a little over two weeks before his 42nd birthday. While the inquest ruled that the cause of death was suicide, close relatives and friends had always maintained that his death was accidental.
Following a concerted Internet campaign in 2009, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for the ”the appalling way [Turing] was treated.”
With the Olympic flame making its way through Britain ahead of this summer’s Games, organizers created a very special moment for all those wanting to celebrate Turing’s life when in Manchester on June 23, Turing’s 100th birthday, the flame handover was carried out over a commemorative statue of Turing.
Turing’s statue was also cloaked in a rainbow flag and flower tributes were left at the statues feet by those wishing to mark Turing’s birthday.
Turing’s birthday was also celebrated by Google. Google created a computational code breaking game or “doodle” for its homepage.