Alan Turing was a British mathematician and computer pioneer who helped to break the Enigma code the Nazis used during World War II. Six decades after his death, he got a formal pardon last week from Queen Elizabeth.
Turing, a homosexual, was found guilty in 1952 of “gross indecency” under an 1885 law that the British parliament would start to repeal in 1967. His sentence included chemical castration and injection with female hormones.
Because of his conviction, Turing lost his government security clearance and was denied entry to America, where he had helped with World War II research. He died in 1954 at age 41. Cyanide was found in his system and his death was ruled a suicide, although his friends questioned that conclusion.
Turing was persecuted for what advanced governments now consider neither illegal nor immoral. His punishment at the time runs counter to many 21st-century sensibilities. Free of such persecution, he might have hastened the computer era or applied his genius to other mathematical frontiers.
Yet progress remains fragile. India has re-criminalized homosexual activity. Russia prohibits the dissemination of “propaganda” about nontraditional sexual relations, which could lead to protests at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Turing earned a doctorate in mathematics from Princeton University. He worked there on building a model of a computer that would mimic the workings of the human mind — the precursor of today’s universal computer. During World War II, he returned to Britain and worked on decoding Enigma’s use by the German navy. His work is credited with saving lives and helping the Allies win the war.
The code-breaking project was so secret that Turing’s heroism was never publicly acknowledged during his lifetime. As more was revealed about his work, supporters began to push for a pardon. The impetus grew after then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized in 2009 for the British government’s treatment of Mr. Turing.
Their efforts paid off with just the fourth pardon ever issued by the queen during her 61-year reign. It was long overdue, but worth doing nonetheless.