In June 2021, the Bank of England began circulating a new £50 banknote in polymer form. The reverse side of this banknote pays tribute to Alan Turing (1912-1954), the English mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist who played an instrumental role in decoding intercepted enemy communications during World War II.
Turing’s contribution to the Allied war effort
After he obtained his PhD from Princeton University in 1938, Alan Turing worked with the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which set up headquarters at Bletchley Park upon the outbreak of World War II. Turing remained in the field of cryptanalysis for the duration of the war.
During his time as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing contributed immensely to the Allied war effort. Scholars have estimated that Turing’s work may have shortened the war by several years, thereby saving millions of lives. Although much of his work was covered by the Official Secrets Act, he was recognized for his services by King George VI in 1946.
Turing subsequently worked at the National Physical Laboratory, and later the Computing Machine Laboratory at the University of Manchester, where he focused on the development of the Manchester computers. As such, he is widely regarded as the father of theoretical computer science.
Alan Turing was a victim of outrageous and irrational persecution
While Alan Turing’s remarkable legacy and contributions to the Allied war effort have been celebrated in recent years, it is important to remember the disgraceful persecution he faced on account of his sexual orientation.
Throughout Turing’s lifetime, homosexual acts were illegal in Britain, as they were in much of the world. In January 1952, after reporting a burglary at his house, the authorities became aware of Turing’s relationship with a man named Arnold Murray. During the investigation, Turing acknowledged the relationship, and both men were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.
Turing pleaded guilty to this charge, which carried a jail sentence. As such, he was faced with a choice. He could opt either for imprisonment or probation, on the condition that he would undergo hormonal “treatment” involving chemical castration over the course of a year.
As a result of his conviction, Turing had his security clearance removed and could no longer work as a consultant for GC&CS, now renamed Government Communications Headquarters. Furthermore, for the same reason, he was denied entry to the United States.
On June 7, 1954, Alan Turing died in his home, aged 41, beside a half-eaten apple believed to have been poisoned. The subsequent inquest concluded that Turing’s cause of death was suicide by cyanide poisoning. In the two years since his conviction, the invasive procedures performed on Turing led to a number of side effects which gradually took a toll on him.
Turing was a man of remarkable intellect and ingenuity who faced cruel and irrational persecution in the country to whose defense he had contributed so much. Had he not been subjected to such absurd persecution, there is no doubt that Alan Turing would have contributed even more to society.
Apologies, pardons, and celebrations of Turing’s legacy
In 1967, the legislation which led to the persecution of Alan Turing and countless other LGBTQ people was finally repealed in England. Although this by no means brought an end to anti-LGBTQ discrimination, it did mark the beginning of a move in a more positive direction.
Following a petition in 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of the British government for the shameful way in which Alan Turing was treated. This was followed by a posthumous royal pardon in 2013. Ultimately, a bill known as the Alan Turing law was implemented in 2017, issuing posthumous pardons for all those convicted of previous anti-LGBTQ laws, as well as removing such offenses from the records of living people.
The Bank of England’s decision to honor Alan Turing by featuring him on £50 banknotes is a testament to his enduring legacy. It also shows how much positive social change can develop in the space of just a few generations; we have seen increasing global respect for LGBTQ rights and the rejection of irrational discrimination.
Homophobic persecution is still enforced by many governments
While there is a growing trend in favor of repealing discriminatory laws, many governments still enforce shocking levels of persecution. As of 2021, same-sex relations are still illegal in 70 countries, often leading to heavy prison sentences. Furthermore, in nine countries, gay people still face capital punishment.
In some countries, the struggle for personal freedom can seem like an uphill battle. Even in societies where LGBTQ people no longer face the same level of persecution as Alan Turing did, many individuals still face the prospect of violence and discrimination founded in prejudice.
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