Codebreaker Turing died by accident not suicide, claims professor

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Alan Turing, the Second World War codebreaker widely regarded as the father of modern computing, may not have taken his own life but have died by accident, an academic has claimed.

Evidence gathered after Turing, 41, died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 was “overlooked” and he could have died as a result of inhaling the poison he used in amateur experiments rather than deliberately ingesting it, said Professor Jack Copeland.

Copeland, director of the The Turing Archive for the History of Computing and author of a new biography of the academic to be published shortly, spoke as events took place around Britain to celebrate the centenary of the under-appreciated scientific genius’s birth yesterday.

“From the records I have been able to obtain, it seems to me very obvious that the inquest was conducted in a very superficial way,” he said.

“The coroner didn’t really investigate the evidence at all, he just jumped to the conclusion that he committed suicide. He seems to have been very biased from the statements in newspapers at the time.”

The coroner at Turing’s inquest ruled he killed himself “while the balance of his mind was disturbed”, adding: “In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.”

Turing, who was homosexual, was found guilty of gross indecency with another man in 1952. To avoid prison, he agreed to receive injections of oestrogen for a year, which were intended to reduce his libido in a process known as “chemical castration”.

Copeland, a professor at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, in New Zealand, was due to talk about Turing’s death at an event in Oxford last night. He said medical evidence suggested Turing died from inhaling cyanide rather than drinking or ingesting it. He said police reported a strong smell of cyanide – which is like bitter almonds – coming from Turing’s lab, where he used it in amateur experiments.

The inquest should be reopened “if possible”, Copeland said. “It would be a terrific thing to do. I think the nation owes it to Turing, who saved the nation in the Second World War.”

Perhaps best known for his part in breaking the German Enigma code, Turing was a mathematician of extraordinary capability. It had been suggested that the famous apple logo was a tribute to Turing, who was said to have bitten into a cyanide-laced apple, though that was later denied by the artist who produced it.