June 23rd is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, father of computer science and artificial intelligence, who committed suicide just shy of 42. In a shocking and frank memoir, his late elder brother John says Alan’s life might have turned out a lot better if his mother was not so nagging—and he recounts the details of his brother’s awful death.
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the ‘60s and ‘70s, John declined to release the account until after his mother’s death, and ultimately left it unpublished in his private papers.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?