Posthumous Apology For World War II Code-Breaker
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Alan Turing received an apology today, one that was a long time coming. Turing died 55 years ago. His death was ruled a suicide. Alan Turing was a British mathematician, he was a founder, somewhat say the founder of modern computer science. He was a code breaker who cracked German ciphers in World War II. And he was gay, which meant that in post-war Britain, he was a criminal. That's what the apology from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was for. And John Graham-Cumming heard about it directly from the prime minister before Brown went public with that apology. Mr. Graham-Cumming is on the line with us. And tell us why it is that you got the news first?
Mr. JOHN GRAHAM-CUMMING (Author, Greek Atlas): Well, I got it first because I'm the person who created the petition that eventually 30,000 people signed on the number 10 Web site. And last night, Gordon Brown was kind enough to actually call me direct to begin telling me that he was going to apologize and to thank me for having brought it to his attention.
SIEGEL: The number 10 Web site being the Web site of number 10 Downing Street, the equivalent to the White House.
MR. GRAHAM-CUMMING: …there's a long tradition in Britain of putting petitions on the doorstep of number 10, usually a big pile of paper with all the signatures on. And the British government has created an e-version of that and you can do it online.
SIEGEL: How important a figure was Alan Turing?
Mr. GRAHAM-CUMMING: Well, to my mind, he is one of the great figures of mathematics and science of the 20th century. He did these amazing things to find the thing called the Turing machine, which is the underpinnings of all of computer science. He then worked in the thick of a war to break the Nazi enigma and other codes, which is supposed to have shortened the war by at least two years. And then after the war he worked on artificial intelligence before we even had computers that were powerful enough to do much addition.
SIEGEL: Now, tell us about his run-in with the law in the 1950s. What happened?
Mr. GRAHAM-CUMMING: Well, what happened is in 1952, he reported a burglary at his home. And it transpired in the investigation that the burglar was related to Alan Turing's boyfriend. Because of that, Alan Turing's homosexuality came out. He was arrested. Tried and convicted. And then he was given the choice of prison or estrogen injections, a sort of cure for being gay.
SIEGEL: Well, I guess he really, in the end, chose neither.
Mr. GRAHAM-CUMMING: Well, in the end he committed suicide two years after his conviction by poisoning himself. In the meantime, he had actually taken a year's worth of estrogen injections, and according to his family, he felt he was hounded.
SIEGEL: You know, the measure of how strong homophobia was at the time is that Alan Turing was someone whose value to the state was so demonstrable from World War II, which was only 10 years less than that before.
Mr. GRAHAM-CUMMING: Yes, he's been quite open about that fact that he was gay during the war. It was well known he was homosexual. And then after the war, he was unfortunately convicted and then eventually killed himself.
SIEGEL: Was there anything in the formal apology that you read by Gordon Brown that struck you as especially apt here and especially fitting?
Mr. GRAHAM-CUMMING: Well, the thing that I appreciated greatly in what he said to me on the phone and then what he wrote in the letter, with it is a clear, unambiguous apology. And it also pleased me that he mentioned all the other victims of the laws that Turing was tried under. When I read it I was very pleased to see this simple apology to this great man.
SIEGEL: Well, John Graham-Cumming, thank you very much for talking with us about it.
Mr. GRAHAM-CUMMING: Bye.
SIEGEL: Mr. Graham-Cumming's petition drive was to win an apology for the late Alan Turing and the Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued one this morning.