What really happened? – #1 Alan Turing

Warning: This is a series covering historical, theoretical and controversial content. All information will be appropriately cited and unconfirmed information will be written in Italics. 

Alan Turing: More than met the eye.

Recently I found myself having some downtime in which I was able to enjoy a meal around the tv with my family, dinner plates on laps and a film playing through as we ate. My family were discussing something to do with bus routes (a common conversation in the house due to two bus drivers being in the family) but I found myself falling in love all over again with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar nominated performance as Alan Turing within ‘The Imitation Game’. The film itself  was loosely based on the biography ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’ by Andrew Hodges and follows a flashback style of narrative in which jumps from different points in Turing’s life.

The film as a whole was received well by audiences and critiques alike, scoring a 8.0/10 on IMDb and 90% from Rotten Tomatoes. But this isnt a film review. Whilst watching the film, like many others I began to wonder what modern day diagnosis would be given to the Mathematician today?

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in ‘The imitation game’ -2014                                Source: https://i.tyimg.com/vi/uHBJtnN5AiY/maxresdefault.jpg

For those who are unaware of the film or of Turing himself: Alan Turing was born in 1912 and attended Sherborne School located in Dorset, England. Whilst studying there Turing showed interest in Science and Mathematics whilst holding a close relationship to another student named Christopher Morcom. Morcom was to be Turing’s first love but from what is known the relationship did not extend further than school friends. Morcom passed away suddenly in 1930 which was believed to encourage Turing to focus on his work in his grief. Turing went on to study at Kings College until 1934 and then produced his first paper in ’36 introducing his idea of the ‘Turing Machine’.

Young Alan Turing                                              Source: https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/496xn/p02ck8fl.jpg

“Probably Turing’s most famous achievement was his contribution to the breaking of the Enigma, the encoder used by the Germans to encrypt secret messages during the Second World War. In March 1940 Turing’s device, later known as the Turing Welchman Bombe, came into operation at Bletchley Park. The Bombe (In the film named Christopher), a series of electromechanically driven rotors, used fragments of decoded Enigma text (‘crib’) to calculate any matching setting of the corresponding rotors in the Enigma encoder, which were used to scramble the messages. The Bombe was an ingenious logic engine, designed to short circuit on any calculation contradicting the ‘crib’, thus freeing computational power to check further settings.” -www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk

After the war what was done at Bletchley Park was kept swept under the rug for many years and those who worked there went back to the lives they had before. Turing though, found himself in the limelight… but not for his groundbreaking work. In 1952 Turing’s house was burgled and it was found to be that Arnold Murray (Alan Turings secret partner at the time) was involved in the crime. Due to this the two of them were prosecuted for homosexual acts, Turing’s punishment for this was a choice between prison and being put under the influence of hormonal drugs to attempt to stop his homosexual tendencies. In order to continue his work Turing chose to be placed on the medication. 

In 1954, Alan ingested an apple allegedly laced with cyanide and subsequently died. His death with ruled out as suicide and his motive was unknown. Many believed he committed suicide due to the medication he was placed on and the prosecution he faced due to his sexuality which influenced his mental state.

Nevertheless Alan Turing is seen as an LGBT historic icon by many and is described as:

“…the father of the modern computer.  His life’s work had an immense impact on the history of the 20th century, both in breaking the German ‘Enigma’ encoder in World War II, and in laying the foundations of computer science.” –http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk

Information above taken from: http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk

Now that we are all caught up, lets go into the social and historical context surrounding Mental Health at the time of Turing’s life.

Since 1948 the UK’s public health service has been the NHS, (National Health Service) which provides:

“a comprehensive range of health services, free at the point of use for people ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom, apart from dental treatment and optical care.” -Wikipedia.

A method used on mental health patients in the 1930s                      Source: https://dualdiagnosis.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/512px-Bergonic_chair.jpg

But even when the NHS came into play Turing was put onto hormonal altering drugs for his Homosexuality. The NHS is very different today than it was in its early stages. During the 1900s experts attempted to look into causes and reasons why a person might act erratically and understand the common opinion of what made someone ‘insane’.

Around the ’30s, Theories were created in order to try and explain unusual behavior with a major influence coming from neurologist Sigmund Freud. Due to the lack of results or slow nature of progress practitioners began to use drastic cures hoping to get rid of ‘mental illness’ quickly. Methods that emerged in the ’30s and ’40s were among the likes of Leucotomy and Electroconvulsive therapy which worked in some cases but without the indepth research was problematic for many.

“the ‘mentally defective’ as the new legislation of 1913 described them in a language that reflects the harsh attitudes of the time and the stigma that resulted from this.” -https://peopleshistorynhs.org

With methods used like this to identify mental health issues its evident why we are so unsure of Turing’s diagnosis or so lack of.

Sadly enough we might not ever know exactly how Turing was in life, we have our dramatized version of him and accounts taken from those who knew Turing on a personal level so wont ever know for sure how the mind of this particular genius works but we can theorize on what we know.

“To build the character, Cumberbatch was obliged to draw on written descriptions and the memories of Turing’s contemporaries. ‘He was described as having his head down to one side and not making eye contact,’ Cumberbatch says, tipping his head. ‘When he did turn and talk to you he had a wonderful smile and was charismatic and encouraging – and polite and fast – but slowed by this pronounced speech impediment that went…’ – his voice begins to rise – ‘very high in pitch, as well as getting stuck on w-w-words.’” -Telegraph (In Interview with Cumberbatch on his role)

Cumberbatch talks about his role as Turing.                                                     Source: cdn.collider.com/wp-content/uploads/Benedict-Cumberbatch-The-Imitation-Game-Interview.Jpg

So looking into theories around the web many people have theorized that Turing had signs of Asperger syndrome which from doing my research into I agree with to a certain extent. A notable individual who discusses this is Irish professor of child and adolescent psychiatry M. Fitzgerald. Within his article written on the matter Fitzgerald looked into if Turing filled the criteria for having Asperger syndrome, if you would like to read further into the article it shall be linked at the bottom of the page.

“For Alan Turing some of the features of Asperger’s syndrome he displayed were advantageous, and without his intense interest in particular academic areas he might not have been able to apply himself so entirely and become as successful as he did.” -www.researchgate.net (M.Fitzgerald’s article)

According to WebMD some common characteristics of Asperger Syndrome are:

  • Unable to make eye contact
  • Awkward in social situations and doesn’t know what to say or how to respond when someone talks to them
  • They may miss social cues that are obvious to other people, like body language or the expressions on people’s faces.
  • May show few emotions.
  • May talk about themselves most of the time and zero in with a lot of intensity on a single subject
  • Repetitive speech and actions
  • May dislike change.
Information taken from: http://www.webmd.com

As covered within Professor Fitzgerald’s work Turing definitely shows signs of many of the above stated characteristics. Specifically focusing intently on a single subject. Fitzgerald’s includes an extract from one of Turing’s school reports from his public school days:

“He spends good deal of time apparently in investigations in advanced mathematics to the neglect of elementary work… lf he is to be a
solely scientific specialist, he is wasting his time at public school” – http://www.researchgate.net (M.Fitzgerald’s article)
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Young Alan Turing played by Alex Lawther (Right) and Christopher Morcom played by Jack                                                              Bannon (Left) in ‘The imitation game’                                                                 Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/4atUWiDriVQ/maxresdefault.jpg

As theorized earlier its believed that after the death of Christopher Morcom, Turing focused more upon his academic studies more than his social interactions. I went on to do some research into how people with Asperger Syndrome and Autism deal with grief. One of the behavioral coping methods (according to INDIANA UNIVERSITY BLOOMINGTON: https://www.iidc.indiana.edu)  was “May have an increase in repetitive or self-stimulatory behaviors” which I believes gives a reason for why Turing went on to giving basically all of his attention to his work. 

In the end we will probably never know how Alan Turing’s brilliant mind worked or what was the reason for his sudden death. What we do know is that without Alan Turing the work at Bletchley Park during the ’30s and ’40s wouldn’t of been nearly as influential if not for the Bombe machine and himself. Personally I support the theory that Turing may of had Asperger Syndrome and also believe that if mental health methods were as advanced during Turing’s life he may of been able to get the support that we offer today.

Overall Alan Turing was one of the most influential people of the last century. 

“On 24 December 2013, Queen Elizabeth II signed a pardon for Turing’s conviction for “gross indecency”, with immediate effect. Announcing the pardon, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said Turing deserved to be “remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort” and not for his later criminal conviction. The Queen officially pronounced Turing pardoned in August 2014.” -Wikipedia.

Will we ever know what really happened?

By Emma Hill


Professor M.Fitzgeralds article:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240630019_Did_Alan_Turing_have_Asperger’s_syndrome

Alan Turing Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing

Indiana University Bloomington – Supporting Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Coping with Grief and Loss through Death or Divorce: https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/supporting-individuals-on-the-autism-spectrum-coping-with-grief-and-loss

ExploringSurrey’s page on Alan Turing: https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/people/scientists/alan_turing/