Science

Did Alan Turing Really Commit Suicide? Inquest Findings Questioned

By Tim Frederick , Jun 24, 2012 02:04 PM EDT
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Legendary mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing, who would've celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday, died of cyanide poisoning at the age of 41 in 1953. Of this there is no doubt. What is in doubt, however, are the findings of the 1954 inquest into his death, which ruled he committed suicide. On Saturday, Turing expert Professor Jack Copeland made his case at a conference in Oxford that the evidence was not nearly conclusive enough to rule his death a suicide, and that it would not be accepted as such today.

Turing was discovered dead in his bed on June 8, 1954 by his housekeeper, with a half-eaten apple by his bedside. It's believed the apple was laced with cyanide, and this was the means through which Alan Turing died.

The most glaring omission of the inquest was the fact the apple was never tested for cyanide. Professor Copeland also states that Turing had a habit of eating an apple at bedtime, and would often leave it half-finished, calling into question the otherwise very symbolic looking scene reminiscent of Snow White, which had convinced many that there was intent behind Turing's death.

Without that symbolism, there's no evidence that points to the fact Alan Turing wanted to, or had planned to die. In fact there is evidence to the contrary, famously glossed over by the coroner at the time, who refuted it with the vague statement: "In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next." Whether 'his type' referred to Turing's intellect or sexuality is unknown.

It was Turing's sexuality that also convinced many that suicide was the cause of his death, as he was being hounded by the government at the time, and there was speculation he would lose his mathematics post at Manchester University over it.

Yet Copeland believes his career was at an all-time high despite the controversy, all of which he bore with good humor, and this was confirmed by friends and neighbors who said he was in especially good spirits just days before his death.

Copeland believes the poisoning was likely accidental, as Turing's mother claimed, as Turing kept cyanide in a spare room for use in experiments, and the room had a powerful odor of cyanide after his death. How the cyanide was distributed in his body was also more consistent with poisoning through inhalation, rather than ingestion.

Copeland admits that we'll likely never know for sure the exact circumstances surrounding Turing's death, and should perhaps instead focus on the man's achievements, which have shaped and influenced the world as we know it today.

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