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The Shame of Medicine: The Case of Alan Turing

Thomas S. Szasz

Alan Mathison Turing (1912–1954) was one of the legendary geniuses of the twentieth century. The only child of a middle-class English family, the Cambridge-educated Turing played a crucial role in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, an achievement often credited with saving Britain from defeat in the dark days of 1941. Because of the secrecy surrounding the British code-breaking effort, for a long time only a few colleagues and high-ranking politicians were aware of Turing’s towering contribution to science and the war effort.

Turing was a mathematician, cryptographer, and pioneering computer scientist. He was good-looking, athletic, eccentric, and openly homosexual. In 1935, backed by John Maynard Keynes, Turing was elected a Fellow of King’s College, a remarkable achievement for so young a man. In 1936 he published a paper that immediately became a classic in mathematics and earned him an an invitation from John von Neumann to continue his studies at Princeton University. In 1938, having been awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics, Turing returned to Cambridge and was soon working at Bletchley Park, the famous British code-breaking “factory.” When the war ended, Turing moved to Manchester where the university created a special readership in the theory of computing for him.

In 1951 Turing began a homosexual relationship with a working-class youth. Returning home one evening, he found that his house had been burglarized. He reported the crime to the police and communicated his suspicion that the culprit was an associate of his gay friend. He confessed to his homosexual affair and was charged with “gross indecency,” a crime then punishable by a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. The judge, taking into account Turing’s intellectual distinction and social position, sentenced him to probation, “on the condition that he submit for treatment by a duly qualified medical practitioner.” In April 1952 he wrote to a friend, “I am both bound over for a year and obliged to take this organo-therapy for the same period. It is supposed to reduce sexual urge whilst it goes on, but one is supposed to return to normal when it is over. I hope they’re right.” Turing was never the same again. His body became feminized. He grew breasts.

Fatal Treatment for a Fictitious Disease

On June 8, 1954, Turing was found dead by his housekeeper, a partly eaten apple laced with cyanide next to his bed. At the inquest, the coroner ruled his death a suicide. Neither his homosexuality nor his psychiatric treatment was mentioned. The coroner said, “I am forced to the conclusion that this was a deliberate act. In a man of this type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.” The verdict was “suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed.” Even in death, psychiatry and the state stigmatized Turing as mad. The posthumous diagnosis of suicide as mental illness is the ritual degradation ceremony of our therapeutic age, much as the posthumous burning of the heretic’s corpse was the ritual degradation ceremony of an earlier theological age.

No one in Turing’s circle, himself included, was able or willing to transcend the psychiatric zeitgeist: Homoerotic behavior and self-determined death are self-evident symptoms of mental illness, it argues, requiring and justifying coercive medical-psychiatric treatment. Turing’s psychiatrist, Dr. Frank M. Greenbaum, vehemently rejected the coroner’s diagnosis, though not by contesting the claims that engaging in homosexual conduct and self-killing are evidence of diseases curable by doctors. “There is not the slightest doubt to me that Alan died by an accident,” declared Greenbaum.

In 1967 the UK decriminalized homosexuality. Overnight it ceased to be a disease in England but not the United States, where for six more years it remained both a crime and a “treatable disease.”

Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, notes that Turing did not consider his homosexuality a disease, a crime, or a shameful condition. He suggests that Turing opted for medical treatment rather than a brief period of imprisonment because he feared that a criminal conviction would be fatal for his career. Countless of Turing’s gay contemporaries at Cambridge and in London—Wittgenstein, Keynes, Lytton Strachey, many of the Apostles and Bloomsburys—sensibly stayed away from psychiatrists. Many famous people—Gandhi, Russell, and Nehru—spent time in prison, though, and went on to do memorable work. This is not true for people imprisoned in mental hospitals. After the psychiatric degraders finish their job, the “patient” is dead—if not biologically then socially.

Psychiatric destruction often begins with psychiatric self-destruction, the denominated patient believing the psychiatrist’s self-deceptions about nonexisting diseases and their damaging treatments. “The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society,” declared Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), “is the compact majority. Yes, the damned, compact, liberal majority.” Let us not forget that the power of science is limited to informing and misinforming. It does not have the power to coerce. In contrast, power to coerce is the very essence of psychiatric pseudoscience allied with the state. Psychiatrists regularly characterize their power to coerce as “suicide prevention.” The opposite is often the case.

The original function of psychiatry—which is approximately 300 years old—was penological: The psychiatrist stigmatized persons as “mad,” deprived them of liberty, and assaulted them with chemical and physical interventions. A little more than 100 years ago individuals began to seek psychiatric help for their own problems. As a result, many people who entrusted themselves to the care of psychiatrists became entrapped in the machinery of punitive mad-doctoring, dramatically portrayed in Ken Kesey’s best-selling novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the film based on it. The recent film Changeling presents a real-life example.

So does Alan Turing’s psychiatric undoing.

Psychiatry: Trap, Not Treatment

The identification of psychiatry with medical healing and humane helpfulness is factually false and morally deceptive, concealing an existential trap with untold-of potentialities for injury and death for the entrapped. More successfully than ever, the modern “biological” psychiatrist misrepresents his profession as based on biological science and medical discovery, while more than ever it is based on pseudoscience and therapeutic deception.

The persecution of homosexuals is paradigmatic of the history of psychiatry’s monumental blunders and brutalities and of its policy of never acknowledging nor apologizing for them. Instead, organized psychiatry intensifies the celebration of its founding quack, Benjamin Rush (1746–1813). Declared Rush, “I have selected those two symptoms [murder and theft] of this disease [crime] (for they are not vices) from its other morbid effects, in order to rescue persons affected with them from the arm of the law, and render them the subjects of the kind and lenient hand of medicine.” What did Rush mean when he spoke of medical kindness and lenience? Lamenting the “excess of the passion for liberty inflamed by the successful issue of the [Revolutionary] war,” he explained, “Were we to live our lives over again and engage in the same benevolent enterprise, our means should not be reasoning but bleeding, purging, low diet, and the tranquilizing chair.” Psychiatry—glorifying the use of coercion as cure—is the shame of  medicine.

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