Image: Turing apology
Alex Dorgan Ross  /  AP file
These are the four-rotor Enigma machines, right, which were once used by the crews of German U-boats in the war. British code-breaker Alan Turing was instrumental in breaking the code, and which is widely thought to have been a turning point in the war.
updated 9/11/2009 12:45:10 PM ET 2009-09-11T16:45:10

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a posthumous apology Friday for the "inhumane" treatment of Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker who committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted for homosexuality and forcibly treated with female hormones.

The mathematician helped crack Nazi Germany's Enigma encryption machine — a turning point in the war — and is considered a father of modern computing.

In 1952, however, Turing was convicted of gross indecency for having sex with a man and offered a choice between prison and "chemical castration" — the injection of female hormones to suppress his libido. His security clearance was revoked and he was no longer allowed to work for the government.

Two years later, he killed himself at age 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

'You deserved so much better'
As Britain marks the 70th anniversary of the September 1939 start of the war — remembered as its "finest hour" — Brown said Turing "deserved so much better" than the treatment he received from postwar society.

"It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War II could well have been very different," Brown said. "He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war."

Brown said Turing was "in effect, tried for being gay." Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967.

"The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely," Brown said. "We're sorry, you deserved so much better."

Brown's apology follows an online petition that drew more than 30,000 supporters, including novelist Ian McEwan, scientist Richard Dawkins and actor and comedian Stephen Fry.

Computer scientist John Graham-Cumming said he started the petition campaign because Turing "wasn't as well known in Britain as I think he deserved to be, as a hero of the Second World War and a great mathematician."

Technology pioneer uncovers secret
Working at the wartime codebreaking center at Bletchley Park, Turing helped crack Germany's secret codes by creating the "Turing bombe," a forerunner of modern computers, to help reveal the settings for the Enigma machine.

Turing also did pioneering work on artificial intelligence, developing the "Turing Test" to measure whether a machine can think. One of the most prestigious honors in computing, the $250,000 Turing Prize, is named for him.

Graham-Cumming said Turing had a strong claim to the title "father of computing."

"He was thinking about what it meant to have a computer long before they existed," Graham-Cumming said. "He laid out the fundamental science of it."

Turing was among a motley group of mathematicians, cryptographers, crossword puzzle aficionados, chess masters and other experts assembled at a mansion called Bletchley Park, northwest of London, to wage a secret war against Nazi Germany. Their goal: cracking Adolf Hitler's supposedly unbreakable codes.

The team uncovered the secret to the Enigma machine and other ciphers used by the Nazi high command, revealing details of the movements of Germany's U-boat fleets and handing victory on the seas to the Allies.

Their work also provided crucial information in the desert campaign against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the preparations for the Allied invasion of France.

"It is doubtful whether the D-Day landings would have happened, let alone succeeded," without Bletchley Park, said Kelsey Griffin, a director of the Bletchley Park museum.

She said Turing "stands alongside (Winston) Churchill as one of our great Britons."

Leader issues rare apology
Secrecy about the work at Bletchley Park, maintained long after the war was over, meant that for decades the role played by Turing and thousands of other codebreakers was not widely known.

Brown's apology, published on his office Web site, was seen as rare. The British government has resisted previous calls to apologize for historical events. In 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed "deep sorrow" for the slave trade, but stopped short of saying sorry.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said Brown's apology to Turing was "most welcome and commendable," but didn't go far enough.

"A similar apology is also due to the estimated 100,000 British men who were convicted of consenting, victimless same-sex relationships during the 20th century," Tatchell said.

More on Alan Turing

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