4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

Alan Turing's Ambiguous Suicide (June 8, 1954)

On June 7, 1954 Turing probably committed suicide in Wilmslow, a town in Cheshire, England, by eating an apple laced with cyanide. He was only 42 years old. Had Turing lived a normal life span he would have contributed profoundly to further developments in computing, and it is even possible that as a result of those contributions, the English computing industry might have been more competitive with that in the United States. Some ambiguity remains about Turing's cause of death. In December 2013 the best summary of the issues was in the Wikipedia article on Alan Turing, from which I quote:

"On 8 June 1954, Turing's cleaner found him dead. He had died the previous day. A post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it was speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was consumed. This suspicion was strengthened when his fascination with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was revealed, especially the transformation of the Queen into the Witch and the ambiguity of the poisoned apple. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide, and he was cremated at Woking Crematorium on 12 June 1954. Turing's ashes were scattered there, just as his father's had been.

'Hodges and David Leavitt have suggested that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the 1937 Walt Disney film Snow White, his favourite fairy tale, both noting that (in Leavitt's words) he took "an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in the poisonous brew". This interpretation was supported in an article in The Guardian written by Turing's friend, the author Alan Garner, in 2011.

"Professor Jack Copeland (philosophy) has questioned various aspects of the coroner's historical verdict, suggesting the alternative explanation of the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from an apparatus for gold electroplating spoons, using potassium cyanide to dissolve the gold, which Turing had set up in his tiny spare room. Copeland notes that the autopsy findings were more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion of the poison. Turing also habitually ate an apple before bed, and it was not unusual for it to be discarded half-eaten. In addition, Turing had reportedly borne his legal setbacks and hormone treatment (which had been discontinued a year previously) 'with good humour' and had shown no sign of despondency prior to his death, in fact, setting down a list of tasks he intended to complete upon return to his office after the holiday weekend. At the time, Turing's mother believed that the ingestion was accidental, caused by her son's careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have arranged the cyanide experiment deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability."