Alan Turing’s Brother: He Should Be Alive Today
In a memoir, Alan Turing’s late elder brother John recounts the details of Alan’s shocking suicide.
Alan Turing, who was born 100 years ago on June 23, 1912, might not have invented the computer. (That honor goes to Charles Babbage and Lord Byron's daughter.) But today’s computing would be unthinkable without the contributions of the British mathematician, who laid down the foundations of computer science, broke Nazi codes that helped win World War II at the famous Bletchley Park, created a secure speech encryption system, made major contributions to logic and philosophy, and even invented the concept of Artificial Intelligence. But he was also an eccentric and troubled man who was persecuted (and prosecuted) for being gay, a tragedy that contributed to his suicide just short of the age of 42 when he died of cyanide poisoning, possibly from a half-eaten apple found by his side. He is hailed today as one of the great originators of our computing age.
In 1959, four years after Alan Turing’s suicide just shy of the age of 42, his mother Sara published her biography Alan M. Turing. Shortly after, his elder brother John began his own alternative account, seeking to “put the record straight” and correct any inaccuracies or biases in his mother’s version. Although he worked on the essay throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, John declined to release the account until after his mother’s death, and ultimately left it unpublished in his private papers. It was found in a drawer by his son John Dermot Turing, and finally included as part of the re-release of Alan M. Turing, in celebration of the centenary of his birth. The following is adapted from the book:
My brother Alan was born on 21* June 1912 in a London nursing home. At this, and at all other times, my father took all decisions of consequence in the family. Now, rightly or wrongly, he decided that he and my mother should return alone to India, leaving both children with foster parents in England. Alan and I were left with “the Wards”—always we referred to them as “the Wards.” We were the wards and they were our guardians but no matter—this was to be the centre of our existence for many years and our home from home. I believe it was here, perhaps in the first four or five years at the Wards, perhaps even in the first two, that Alan became destined for a homosexual. Has anyone mentioned it until now?
No. My mother was fully aware of it before Alan’s death (not, I imagine, that she had the faintest idea of what it implied), but she makes no reference to it in her book. One can put that down to Edwardian reticence if one pleases. In my view, based on such conversation as I had with my mother about it, necessarily reduced to a minimum, her reaction was much what one might expect if a specialist had informed her that her son was color blind or had an incurable obsession with spiders: it was a nasty shock of brief duration and of no great significance. I am trying to make this memoir as truthful as I can, so I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals. To my mind, what is intolerable is the world of the “gay crusade” and, as my unfortunate brother may be cast in the part of an early and valiant crusader, this is by no means an irrelevant comment.
My mother, perhaps unwittingly, gives the impression in her book that she recognized Alan’s genius from the start, and that she sedulously fostered it. If so, she did not give that impression in the family at the time; in fact, quite the contrary.
‘Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition’ by Sara Turing. 194 pp. Cambridge University Press. $30. (Kings College, University of Cambridge)
My father, on the whole, either ignored my brother’s eccentricities, or viewed them with amused tolerance but (as will appear) there were deep dudgeons when Alan started to accumulate appalling school reports at Sherborne. As for myself, with the selfishness of youth, and separated by a gap of four years, I did not care what Alan did, and I was content to go my own way, as indeed he was content to go his. Our interests were so dissimilar that they never clashed. The only person in the household who was forever exasperated with Alan, constantly nagging him about his dirty habits, his slovenliness, his clothes and his offhand manners (and much else, most of it with good reason) was my mother. If this was due to some early recognition of his genius, she was certainly doing nothing to foster it by trying to press him into a conventional mould. Needless to say, she achieved nothing by it except a dogged determination on Alan’s part to remain as unconventional as possible. The truth of the matter, as I now view it in retrospect, is that neither of Alan’s parents or his brother had the faintest idea that this tiresome, eccentric and obstinate small boy was a budding genius. The business burst upon us soon after he went to Sherborne. After a few terms, it became apparent that he was far ahead of the other boys in mathematics: when Alan was sixteen, the maths master told my mother that there was nothing more that he could teach him and he would have to progress from there on his own. I think it must have been when Alan was due to take the School Certificate examination (now replaced by “O” levels) that he read Hamlet in the holidays. My father was delighted when Alan placed the volume on the floor and remarked “Well, there’s one line I like in this play.” My father could already see a burgeoning interest in English literature. But his hopes were dashed when Alan replied that he was referring to the final stage direction (Exeunt, bearing off the bodies).
I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals. To my mind, what is intolerable is the world of the “gay crusade.”
Alan was first class at beating the system. He refused to work at anything except his precious maths and science, but he had an incredible aptitude for examinations, aided by last minute swotting. At Sherborne, marks were awarded both for term’s work and examination results; these were read out in turn, followed by the combined result. On one famous occasion, he was twenty-second out of twenty-three on the term’s work, first in exams and third on the combined results. One Easter holiday in Dinard, he spent all his time collecting seaweed and brewing it up in the cellar until at length he extracted a few drops of iodine which he carried back to the science master at Sherborne in high triumph. When later we were living in Guildford, he had a series of crazes. He tried to learn the violin, which was excruciating. Then he turned his attention to breeding those little red banana flies in test tubes, so that he could prove Mendel’s theory at first hand. Unfortunately, they escaped and the house was full of banana flies for several days. Oddest of all, in the heat of summer, he spent much of his time dressed as a private soldier allegedly drilling at Knightsbridge barracks, to what purpose nobody knew, but looking back on it now, I strongly suspect that drilling was not the object of the exercise at all. He was, as I have said, good at beating the system and, of course, the odder the things he did, the less one was likely to enquire into them.
In 1931, Alan went to King’s College, Cambridge, with a mathematical scholarship. Soon afterwards, in March 1935, he wrote the thesis for which he was awarded a Fellowship, at the unusually early age of twenty-two. I have a horrid recollection of “The Gaussian Error Function” (whatever that might be), for Alan had left it to the eleventh hour to sort the sheets, parcel and dispatch them. My mother and I spent a frantic half hour on hands and knees putting them in order; Mother did up the parcel in record time and Alan sped with it to the GPO3 on his bike, announcing on his return that there were at least twenty minutes to spare. This is my only positive contribution to mathematical thought. On or before the outbreak of war, Alan was recruited from King’s College, Cambridge, along with other promising mathematicians, To work as a code-breaker at Bletchley. Much has been written about this establishment in recent years, including a great deal of rubbish about Alan; one author, who shall remain nameless, describing him as the son of his maternal grandfather. Of course, none of us knew then, nor for many years after the war, what Alan was doing at Bletchley, where he spent most of the early part of the war. In fact, he was engaged in breaking the German naval codes. The best and shortest book on the work at Bletchley is Peter Calvocoressi’s Top Secret Ultra, published by Cassell, As someone rightly remarked, for thus saving the nation from disaster, Alan should have been given an earldom but, in fact, he was awarded an OBE, which, to the amusement of his friends, but quite properly, in my opinion, he kept in a tin box along with such aids to gracious living as screws, nails, nuts and bolts.
My brother’s eccentricities have become legendary and some of them have become distorted in the process. For example, Mr. Ronald Lewin, in his book, Ultra Goes To War, says that “… in some fit of despondency Alan converted all his money into cash and buried it in the Bletchley woods as a reserve against disaster.” In fact, he did nothing of the kind. He had decided that if there were a German invasion, banking accounts would be useless, so he bought some silver ingots for use on the black market. These he trundled in an ancient perambulator and buried in a field (not at Bletchley), where he made a sketch map of their position so he could find them after the war. After the war, he enlisted the help of his friend, Donald Michie (now Professor Michie of Edinburgh University), to dig up these ingots—using, typically, a homemade metal detector—but the heavy ingots were by now well on their way to Australia and were never seen again.
I hope the author of the book recommended by Mr. Watkins will be sufficiently acute to distinguish eccentricity from idiosyncracy and both from the just plumb crazy. I rather think that my brother ran the whole gamut. In the “just plumb crazy” class, I put the business of his chaining his mug to the radiator to prevent its being stolen. This may, however, have been one of his practical jokes because he was heard to declare that he had devised a special code for the lock which he defied the other cryptographers to decipher. If the episode of “the burglar” had not proved, ultimately, so fatal to Alan, I suppose this, too, might have been regarded as farcical. It occurred a couple of years before Alan’s death and I believe that it was this that turned the scales against him. I had never had even the faintest notion that Alan was a homosexual. One did not in those days (at least in our middle class) talk or even think about homosexuals and lesbians: one had heard of them, of course. (There was a book called Pansies by D.H. Lawrence, displayed in Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly when I was an articled clerk aged about 21. “Another boring gardening book,” I sighed as I passed by.) I expect we were a little stupid.
One morning, there arrived a letter for me from Alan—a remarkable thing of itself, neither a postcard nor a telegram. I opened it and the first sentence read “I suppose you know I am a homosexual.” I knew no such thing. I stuffed the letter in my pocket and read it in the office. There followed the story of “the burglar.” He was not a burglar, not even a housebreaker. At this time, Alan was working at Manchester University. The so-called “burglar” was, in fact, a nasty young man whom Alan had picked up in Manchester (or the other way about) and had come by invitation to Alan’s house. On his way out, he relieved Alan of his gold watch (left to him by his father) and a few other portable items. That was the “burglar”—so then, and for afterwards, described by Alan.
Alan foolishly but typically reported the loss to the police, who did not seem much interested in “the burglar.” But they were greatly interested in the prospect of prosecuting a don, a near-Olympic runner and a Fellow of the Royal Society for homosexual practices, then proscribed by the law. Alan then consulted his University friends, who strongly advised him to defend the case, instruct leading counsel and heaven knows what else. In the meantime, would I kindly inform our mother of the situation? The short answer to that was that I would not.
So I dropped everything and went to Manchester where I consulted Mr. G, the senior partner in a leading firm of Manchester solicitors. He, in turn, saw Alan’s solicitor, Mr. C, who persuaded Alan to plead guilty. In consequence, the case received the minimum of publicity. Alan was put on probation in return for an undertaking that he would undergo medical treatment. He remained secure in his university post and there were no headlines in the national press to alarm my mother.Meanwhile, he had grudgingly consented to visit her upon my insistence that she must be forewarned in case the journalists got hold of it. What exactly he told her or what she understood of it, I don’t know: she did not seem to be greatly interested.
Alan did not seem to understand, even then, how close he had been to disaster, though did he, I wonder, have some premonition of things to come? He continued to talk about “the burglar” and wrote me an unpleasant letter suggesting that I cared nothing for his plight or that of homosexuals in general (the letter, perhaps, being not far wide of the mark) and that I was merely concerned to protect myself and my partners from adverse comment in the City from our Establishment friends. It was so far from the truth that I sent him a tart reply of which I feel ashamed. It was a disagreeable business and the only occasion I can remember that we quarreled.
Some two years later, during the Whitsun holiday, I had taken one of my daughters to the cinema and arrived home about 10.30pm. In my absence, the Manchester police had telephoned to say that Alan had been found dead in his house. Late as it was, I telephoned the ever kindly and shrewd Mr. G, who promised to meet me at the station in Manchester the next morning. He took me to the police and thence we went to the mortuary where I identified Alan’s body. He had taken cyanide. By great good fortune, my mother was on holiday in Italy and did not return home until after the inquest.
Mr G advised me strongly not to instruct counsel to appear at the inquest and told me of the unhappy course which some other cases had taken before this coroner, a retired doctor who could not abide lawyers. The possibility of establishing death by accident was minimal; the best we could hope for was the considerate verdict of “balance of mind disturbed.”He was right and I accepted his advice. At the inquest itself, this soon became apparent: there were present some eight or nine reporters, some from the national press, with pencils poised and waiting for the homosexual revelations. They were disappointed. I gave evidence briefly. The coroner asked me a few perfunctory questions. The verdict was as anticipated. When my mother returned, she was highly indignant and made no secret of her belief that I had grossly mishandled the case. She evolved various theories of her own to establish to her own satisfaction that it was really an accident. But I had worked on the very same theories myself in Manchester for nearly three days and there was one fatal flaw in them. This was the half-eaten apple beside Alan’s bed where his body was found. The apple was to disguise the bitter taste of the cyanide and thus ensure that the poison would do its work.
In those unhappy days in Manchester, I visited Alan’s psychiatrist who told me a great deal about Alan that I did not know before—among other things, that he loathed his mother. I refused to believe it. He then handed me two exercise books in which Alan had entered such matters as psychiatrists require of their patients, including their dreams. “You had better take them away and read them,” he said, adding that there was a third book, probably in Alan’s house. I viewed the two books in my hotel with horror, but I was still bent on proving the accident theory and decided I had better read them. I wish I had not. Alan had been a practicing homosexual since the age of puberty. His comments on his mother were scarifying. To my great relief, I was mentioned only once or twice and not in opprobrious terms. I returned the books to the psychiatrist the following day. There remained the problem of the third book, for it was essential that it should be found so that it would not fall into my mother’s hands. Eventually it was found and returned to the psychiatrist. Two days later, my mother arrived in Manchester and ransacked the house for clues bearing on her preconceived theories. I need hardly add that she remained unaware of the books and of Alan’s feelings about her until the day of her death.
I think I owe it to their memories to put the record straight. Inevitably, it has fallen to my lot to present some less appealing features of Alan’s character and habits. He was a complex man and much loved by many. Had he been better understood when he was young—and if I, among others, had treated him with more consideration—he might be alive today.
*Editor's note: John Turing seems to have his brother's date of birth wrong. Most sources agree that it was June 23.