Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Alan Turing's Poisoned Apple

I recently watched The Imitation Game on Netflix, which is a really interesting look at the story of Alan Turing and the team that cracked the Nazi enigma code during World War II. I enjoyed the movie, and although parts of it were historically inaccurate, I actually thought it was relatively accurate for a Hollywood movie (more of the relationship between him and Keira Knightly's character was true than I assumed, for example). I don't mind when a historical account has some inaccuracies if it inspires me to look into a topic I never would have before.
So while I was checking out Wikipedia to read up on the real Alan Turing, I found this interesting but tragic possible connection to fairy tales. Turing was found dead just before his 42nd birthday and there is debate as to whether or not it was suicide. It could have been an accidental result of his experiments that involved cyanide, but some have come up with a more dramatic theory based on the half eaten apple that was found by his bed.

"Andrew Hodges and another biographer, David Leavitt, have both suggested that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the Walt Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), 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.""

The movie hints that the death was suicide caused by the humiliation and stigma associated with being homosexual at the time (he was convicted of "gross indecency" and took hormone pills as part of his "therapy"). Either way, it was a tragic event and a great loss. Although I hate to think of fairy tales being acted out for such a sad purpose (if that is really what happened), I do like the fact that this brilliant man not only loved the fairy tale Snow White, but really enjoyed the Disney cartoon. It shows how powerful an influence the early Disney films were, and of course fairy tale imagery in general (can you imagine a current brilliant mathematician admitting to loving a certain scene from Frozen or something?)


  1. The Imitation Game definitely is a biopic, i.e. a movie that will try to make its protagonist look a bit better than he was in real life and make the events a bit more dramatic, but it is a really good one. I can reccomend it to everyone even if you don't like period pieces or computers. Don't let the trailer turn you off: The movie i a bit Hollywood-ish, but not nearly as much as the trailer makes it seem. I can also reccomend the play Breaking the Code, which offers a diffeerent (though not more historically accurate) view on Alan Turing. However unlike The Imitation Game it is a bit harder to get into, so I'd say only watch it if you're interested in the subject matter.

    It should be noted that linking the apple to Snow White is pure speculation, Turing left no suicide note, so we cannot be sure what his reasoning for picking this method of suicide - if it was a suicide - was. But whether he really choseto kill himself by eating a poison apple because he was "inspired" by Snow White or whether that was merely an interpretation by his biographers, the fame of this hypothesis shows that the image of the poisoned apple is a popular and powerful one. Some even believe that the Apple logo was inspired by Alan Turing - though that is not true. I find it fascinating how folklore keeps transforming and takes on entirely new connotations. Alan Turing was an important scientist, but that is not what he is rembered for. He is rembered for being discriminated and prosecuted because of his homosexuality and for his death, which in the public eye is linked to it (the theory that his death could have been accidental is largely unknown). And the poison apple plays a great part in that. Because it is a a sad image we already know (and fear ?) since our childhood and therefore can be easily linked to another person that was persecuted for being different.

    However it is a double edged sword, because it keeps Alan Turing in the public conscience, but not because of his achievements or as an individual, but as a symbol for the consequences of discrimination that can be utilized for many political agendas. It is great that we live in a time where a homsexual scientist can be publicly renowned. But Alan Turing should not be reduced to his homosexuality, nor should we forget when we tell his story that he was a real person, not a fairy tale like Snow White.

    1. I tried to make it clear in the post that the poisoned apple/Snow White angle was just a theory, hopefully that came across! But it is very telling that biographers would jump from "he had poison in him and there was a partial apple in the room" to "he was probably acting out Snow White," because as you say, there's no way of knowing.