Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous royal pardon for a 61-year-old conviction for homosexual activity.
Dr Turing, who was pivotal in breaking the Enigma code, arguably shortening the Second World War by at least two years, was chemically castrated following his conviction in 1952.
His conviction for “gross indecency” led to the removal of his security clearance and meant he was no longer able to serve at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) where he had continued to work following service at Bletchley Park during the war.
Dr Turing, who died aged 41 in 1954 and is often described as the father of modern computing, has now been granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy by the Queen, which will come into effect today, following a request from Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.
“Dr Alan Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind,” Mr Grayling said.
“His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the Second World War where he was pivotal to breaking the Enigma code, helping to end the war and save thousands of lives.
“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conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed.
“Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”
Dr Turing died of cyanide poisoning and an inquest recorded a verdict of suicide, although his mother and others maintained his death was accidental.
There has been a long campaign to clear the mathematician’s name, including a well-supported e-petition and private member’s bill, along with support from leading scientists such as Sir Stephen Hawking.
The Justice Secretary has the power to ask the Queen to grant a pardon for civilians convicted in England and Wales.
In September 2009, then prime minister Gordon Brown issued a posthumous apology to Dr Turing for his prosecution as a homosexual after a petition calling for such a move.
An e-petiton – titled “Grant a pardon to Alan Turing” – received 37,404 signatures when it closed in November last year.
But the request was declined on the grounds that Dr Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.
Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Alan Turing was a remarkable man who played a key role in saving this country in World War Two by cracking the German Enigma code. His action saved countless lives. He also left a remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements, often being referred to as the father of modern computing.”
Sadiq Khan MP, shadow justice secretary, said: “This is a long overdue recognition of the crucial role played by Alan Turing in the efforts to win World War Two and in our nation’s proud record of scientific discovery.
“A pardon from the Queen is a truly fitting tribute and reflects the hard work of those who’ve campaigned for many years so that the shameful way he was treated could, in a small but important way, be righted.”
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey, who introduced the private member’s bill in the Lords calling for a royal pardon, said it was “wonderful” news. He said: “This has demonstrated wisdom and compassion. It has recognised a very great British hero and made some amends for the cruelty and injustice with which Turing was treated.
“It’s a wonderful thing, but we are not quite finished yet.
“I will continue to campaign for all those convicted as Turing was, simply for being gay, to have their convictions disregarded.”
‘Father’ of computer science
Turing was born in 1912 in a nursing home in Paddington, London.
Science was “an extra-curricular passion”, which led him to become an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge, biographer Andrew Hodges has said.
A “distinguished” degree was followed by a Fellowship of King’s College in 1935 and a Smith’s Prize in 1936 for work on probability theory.
Turing then spent two years from September 1936 at Princeton University.
During the Second World War, he worked at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park – the forerunner of GCHQ – where he devised the techniques which cracked the German Enigma code.
By 1942, he was well established there, and seen as “shabby, nail-bitten, tie-less, sometimes halting in speech and awkward of manner”, according to Mr Hodges.
He is widely seen as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence and is credited with helping to shorten the course of the war.
But despite his achievements, in 1952 he was prosecuted for homosexuality, which was then illegal.