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Topics In the News
Alan Turing Receives Royal Pardon
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/24/13
Last updated on: 12/24/13
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Alan Turing.

Alan Turing, one of the greatest mathematical thinkers in history whose work on cracking the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park is said to have shortened World War II, has been granted a rare royal pardon. On December 23, 2013, Queen Elizabeth II, at the urging of the British government, officially pardoned Turing, who was convicted of "gross indecency" with a man in 1952, under the obscure Royal Prerogative of Mercy Act.

The pardon comes nearly 60 years after his suicide from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41. The government had previously rejected a request that Turing be pardoned on the grounds that he had been properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense.

As explained in The Independent, "A pardon is usually granted only when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest, such as a family member. But Turing's pardon has been issued without either requirement being met." Rather, it follows a sustained campaign by scientists, including Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, and a petition signed by more than 37,000 British citizens.

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said Turing deserved to be "remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort" and not for his later criminal conviction. "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conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed," he said. "A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man."

In a statement, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Turing "saved countless lives" and "played a key role in saving this country in World War II by cracking the German Enigma code."

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of the government in which he described Turing's treatment as "horrifying" and "utterly unfair." But scientists and gay-rights advocates wanted the government to clear him completely of the gross indecency conviction.

In 2012, U.K.'s Royal Mail honored Turing with a commemorative stamp. He was one of ten prominent people chosen by the U.K.'s Royal Mail to be included in its "Britons of Distinction" series that was launched in February 2012.

The posthumous pardon is yet another attempt by the British government to rectify the manifest injustice visited upon Turing.

Turing, who made inestimable contributions to modern science and mathematics, was recognized for his wartime cryptographic work that led to breaking Germany's Enigma Code with an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in 1946 and elected to the Royal Society at an unusually young age in 1951. But in 1952, when he was deputy director of the Royal Society Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester, his life was turned upside down.

When he reported the burglary of his home by a working-class young man with whom he was involved, he was arrested and prosecuted for what was then known under British law as "Gross Indecency," a section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (also known as the Labouchère Amendment), under which Oscar Wilde had also been charged in 1895.

Turing was offered a stark choice: go to prison or submit to the administration of the hormone estrogen. This procedure was known as "organo-therapy," a form of aversion therapy designed to destroy his sex drive. It was a type of chemical castration.

The administration of the female hormone left Turing impotent. He also developed breasts. Two years after his arrest, and one year after this coerced and barbaric "therapy," Alan Turing used cyanide to kill himself.

Notwithstanding the fact that he may have been the most brilliant scientist of his generation, someone whose work in deciphering the German codes during World War II played a major role in achieving Allied victory, Turing was nevertheless sacrificed to the cold war hysteria over homosexuality.

He was, however, but one of many thousand U.K. citizens who were persecuted in this way. As Prime Minister Brown noted in his apology in 2009 Turing's treatment was by no means unique: "Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue."

In a commentary at PinkNews, activist Chris Ward said that while the pardon was very good news, the government needs to go further and pardon everyone who was convicted under the unjust laws that led to Turing's demise.

Ward argues that Turing should not have been pardoned because of his exceptional achievements, but because the law under which he was convicted was unjust: "the notion that Turing deserved his pardon for the things he did rather than because the conviction was wrong states plainly and clearly that if you were in love at that time with somebody of the same sex and didn't happen to be a war hero or a mathematical genius, then you remain a criminal. The campaign for justice is far from over."

The video below from YouTube's SciShow describes Turing's achievement and his unjust fate.

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