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Alan Turing’s teachers called his school work ‘weak’ and ‘vague’

October 23, 2017
BBC Icons: World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing

(Creative Commons)

Alan Turing is widely considered to be a codebreaking genius who helped win World War Two.

But it turns out his own school teachers were less than impressed with some of his work.

Newly released school reports show his teachers thought his ideas in physics were “vague” and messily explained, and his French “weak”.

Turing’s report card from Sherborne School, in Dorset, is to be put on show as part of a new Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition.

(Wikipedia)
(Wikipedia)

His teacher’s verdicts, from the summer of 1929, reveal they were slow to appreciate Turing’s talents.

Donald Eperson, his maths master, deemed that his Higher Certificate papers showed talent but felt “he must realise that ability to put a neat & tidy solution on paper — intelligible and legible — is necessary for a first-rate mathematician”.

Henry Gervis, his physics master, agreed: “He has done some good work but generally sets it down badly.

“He must remember that Cambridge will want sound knowledge rather than vague ideas.”

Meanwhile his French teacher was less than complimentary, writing that “his “proses have been very weak. Most of the mistakes are elementary and the result of hasty work.”

In English his reading was deemed to be “weak”, and although his essays did “show ideas” they were “grandiose”, another teacher observed.

The full extent of his talents came to light during World War Two when he was deployed to Bletchley Park as a cryptographer.

The mathematical genius worked to crack the German Enigma codes – which is widely believed to have meant an earlier end to World War II.

Turing, now hailed as the grandfather of modern computing, was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1952 after having sex with a man.

He was chemically castrated, barred from working for GCHQ, and is believed to have been driven to suicide.

The new exhibition, at Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, will put on display a teaspoon from his laboratory that his mother believes was responsible for his “accidental” death.

Sara Turing wrote on a label attached to the spoon: “It seems probable that he was intending to gold-plate this one using cyanide of potassium of his own manufacture.”

A science book which belonged to his first love, Christopher Morcom, a fellow pupil at Sherborne School, will also be displayed at the exhibition.

Morcom died aged 18 from bovine tuberculosis.

His parents later established the Christopher Morcom science prize at the school, for which Turing became the inaugural winner.

Turing chose as his prize a copy of Mathematical Recreations and Essays – the last chapter of which, notably, explains code breaking.

It’s not the only piece of information from the mathematical genius to have gone on display in recent years.

Original court documents from the ‘gross indecency’ case that ended Turing’s career have previously been made available for public viewing.

Cheshire Pride collaborated with historians to make the documents available in Chester Town Hall, near to where the trial took place.

The official court documents provided by Cheshire County Archives list the charges, pleas and sentences passed on Turing during his trial.

RELATED: The UK’s Turing Law explained

A book of commemoration next to the display allows the public to share their thoughts and feelings about the issues faced by Turing and the LGBT community, both in the past and today.

Helen Pickin-Jones, Chair of Chester Pride, said at the time: “These are court files of international significance.

“Alan Turing is hailed as the pioneer of computer science, but the sad sequence of events that ultimately led to his suicide in 1954 begin right here in these documents.

“Just a few simple lines of text reveal the appalling treatment of one of our national heroes – a man who happened to be gay, but a man who helped save millions of lives during World War Two and supported the Allied effort to defeat Nazi Germany.

“By putting these files on public display for the very first time ahead of this year’s Chester Pride festival, we hope to help recognise Alan Turing’s contribution and legacy, to champion and raise awareness of the LGBT community, and to celebrate the diversity of our wonderful city.”

Turing was granted a rare posthumous Royal Pardon by the Queen in 2013 after a public campaign.

This year a law was passed to pardon men convicted of having sex with other men, of which there are thought to be about 49,000, following a pardon given to Alan Turing.

The 2017 Act enables those persons, both living and dead, who were convicted of or cautioned for certain repealed offences to be pardoned.

More: Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, Codebreaker, Gay, LGBT, school, World War Two, WW2

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