Turing Committed Suicide: Case Closed

By Patrick Sammon & Paul Sen

The evidence is clear that Alan Turing committed suicide on June 7, 1954.  A recent analysis by Professor Jack Copeland aims to call this conclusion into question.   Based on previously public information and new research that our team conducted during the production of CODEBREAKER, we believe the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Turing took his own life.

The theory that Alan Turing’s death was an accident has been around for decades.  Turing’s mother Sara believed it until the day she died in 1976.  While we can sympathize with her loss, it’s clear she was wrong back then.  And, with all due respect to his distinguished academic achievements, we believe Professor Copeland is wrong now.

Our production team spent 18 months researching Turing’s life, death, and legacy.  As part of that process, we reexamined the circumstances of Turing’s death.  We concluded that the evidence was so strong in favor of Turing’s suicide that we didn’t include his mother’s speculation in our film.  In no particular order, here is why we reached this conclusion:

1. Alan Turing’s brother John has written an account of his brother Alan in which he describes reading the dream books that Alan Turing had written at the suggestion of Dr. Franz Greenbaum, a Jungian analyst whom Alan visited during the last 18 months of his life.  After Alan’s death, John Turing was urged to read these dream books by Dr. Greenbaum because at the time John was inclined to believe the death was an accident.  Greenbaum felt that there was enough evidence in the dream books to suggest that Alan was deeply unhappy and that suicide was a likely scenario. After reading the dream books John Turing changed his mind: Alan, in his mind, had committed suicide.  The dream books have since been destroyed, but John Turing’s son Dermot is convinced that his father was right and that his uncle Alan committed suicide.  In turn, Dr. Greenbaum’s surviving daughters remember their father being devastated at Alan’s death, devastated because as his therapist he had an insight into Alan’s death as suicide rather than accident.

2.  Professor Copeland says the coroner should not have ruled the death a suicide in part because there was no evidence of pre-meditation.  The historical record tells a different story.  First, Turing prepared a last will and testament on February 11, 1954, less than four months before his death.  Turing biographer Andrew Hodges, in his book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” notes that Turing mentioned suicide as far back as 1937.  Additionally, Turing’s close friend and the executor of his will, Nick Furbank wrote to Turing’s friend Robin Gandy soon after the death.  Furbank mentioned that Turing had previously spoken of suicide to him and Turing had put some of his papers in order before his death.  Furbank wrote, “The way he talked about suicide before, and his general way of doing things (plus the fact that he had arranged his letters in labeled packets) still makes me think he could not have done it just on impulse.”

Believers of the accident theory point to unsent mail and an appointment for the day after his death as evidence of an accident.  Experts on suicide have told us that often the actual decision is made on an impulse.  With Turing, it seems he had thought about it for some time, but may have made the actual decision to carry it out in the spur of the moment.  Experts told us how the families of suicide victims often protest that the death would have made sense a few months or years before the fatal act.  Or that their loved one was not acting depressed.  In fact, they say there may have been a recent improvement in their condition.  The fact that some people who saw Turing in the days before his death were confused by his apparent suicide is not unusual when compared with other cases of suicide.  We will never know the exact reasons why he did it because suicide is often an inexplicable act.

3.  Professor Copeland theorizes that Turing accidentally ingested cyanide during an experiment.  It was known that Turing used cyanide in certain scientific studies such as an electrolysis experiment.  According to Hodges’ book, Turing’s mother had warned him at Christmas 1953 to be careful and wash his hands.  Alan told his mother, “I’m not going to injure myself mother.”  Two points:  a man of Turing’s high intelligence surely would be aware of the danger of cyanide in particular, even if he was untidy.  After all, he had been working with cyanide for some time, so he was experienced working with potentially deadly chemicals.  In addition, knowing his Mother’s warning, it created an ideal way to commit suicide while leaving his mother with the impression that it was an accident.

4.  Aside from finding a bottle of cyanide crystals in Turing’s home, authorities also discovered a glass jar filled with a cyanide solution.  This may be the solution from which Turing took his fatal dose.  The autopsy report shows that Turing’s stomach “contained four ounces of fluid which smelled very strongly of bitter almonds, as does a solution of cyanide.”  This detail is significant because it points strongly to a scenario where Turing consumed the cyanide orally.  In addition, a piece of apple was found by his bedside and John Turing believed that it was eaten to mask the flavor of the cyanide.  The fact that Turing often ate an apple at bedtime does not make this any less likely.

5. Turing’s body was found lying prone in bed, not in a position of struggle or of attempted escape as you might expect if he had died accidentally.  His body was found in a position that suggests he had made a choice to end his life.

6. It is important to remember an event that happened to Turing several weeks before his death.  Our film highlights the visit Turing made with Dr. Greenbaum’s family to Blackpool, an English seaside resort, because it demonstrates Turing’s frail state of mind in the weeks before his death.  Greenbaum’s daughter, Barbara Maher (nee Greenbaum), told us how she remembers that Turing had turned up wearing a school blazer and trousers that were far too short for him.  Of their trip to the seaside, she told us, “There was a fortune teller’s tent on the promenade and Alan decided that he would like to go in and see the fortune teller.  And he went in there and he was gone for a little while and he came out and we looked at him, and he was ashen faced, absolutely horrified expression on his face.  He wouldn’t divulge what had happened, what the woman had said to him.  He was desperately, desperately unhappy.  And he didn’t say anything more after that.”

7. Professor Copeland dismisses the effect of Turing’s hormone therapy on his state of mind at the time of his death.  CODEBREAKER includes a detailed examination of what the oestrogen is likely to have done to his body and mind.  Dr. Allan Pacey, an expert in male fertility from The University of Sheffield, confirmed that the drug Turing was likely to have been ‘prescribed’ was a strong synthetic oestrogen called Stilboestrol, which was in use at the time.  Dr. Pacey told us that Stilboestrol would have caused Turing to lose his libido, to have become impotent, to have put on weight, to have lost his body hair, to become extremely lethargic and to grow breasts. It also would’ve affected his mental acuity.  Pacey told us, “We know from the medical evidence that if you castrate a man then you change his ability to think and his ability to concentrate.  And if you take testosterone away, then the brain will become muddled.”  One of Turing’s letters to his friend Robin Gandy talks about his “shocking tendency at present to fritter my time away in anything but what I ought to be doing.”

In the year he was on Stilboestrol, Turing was hopeful that his symptoms would be reversible.  Dr. Pacey says the effects of Turing’s treatment are likely to have lingered after he stopped taking Stilboestrol.  “The theory is if you stop exposure of the male body to oestrogen, then slowly over time his testosterone levels will begin to rise,” said Pacey.  “That’s fine in theory.  It can take many, many months, six, seven, eight nine months, to recover sexual function, if at all.  Some men report that they never recover their sexual function after they’ve taken oestrogen therapy for that long.”  It is clear the chemical castration would have had an impact on Turing’s mental health that cannot easily be dismissed.

Professor Copeland says that Turing had come through his hormone therapy in good spirits.  Professor David Leavitt, another of Turing’s biographers, takes a different view.  He sees a change in tone in Turing’s writings after the arrest. “I think it was a demoralizing experience and embittering experience for him.  And he was never the same afterwards.”

Taken together, all these items create a strong case to support the coroner’s original finding:  Alan Turing committed suicide on June 7, 1954.


Patrick Sammon and Paul Sen are the Executive Producers of CODEBREAKER.

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