In addition to being one of the most notable mathematicians and computer scientists in British history, Alan Turing played a key role in cracking German codes during the Second World War. Despite the importance of his contribution, and the role intelligence from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) played in helping the allies in the Battle of the Atlantic, Turing was subsequently persecuted by the British authorities for being homosexual.
Turing was stripped of security clearance, criminally prosecuted for consensual sex with another man, chemically castrated with estrogen injections, and eventually driven to depression and suicide.
Recently, a petition was launched insisting that the “British Government should apologize to Alan Turing for his treatment and recognize that his work created much of the world we live in and saved us from Nazi Germany. And an apology would recognize the tragic consequences of prejudice that ended this man’s life and career.” An apology for both his specific treatment and the general persecution of homosexuals seems entirely in order. Hopefully, the government will bow to the petitioner’s request, despite Turing not having any surviving family to apologize to.
While writing a historical wrong is a valid reason for issuing an apology, the incident is also not without contemporary relevance. Just look at the continued policy within the US armed forces to dismiss gay linguists from the military. Once again, people making a significant contribution to national security are being discriminated against on the basis of characteristics that are none of their government’s business.
[Update: 10 September 2009] Admirably, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology to Alan Turing: “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we canâ€™t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. 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.” The full statement is on the Prime Ministerial website.