To celebrate the circulation of the new £50 note depicting Alan Turing, GCHQ — the successor organization to his Bletchley Park codebreaking team — recently released what it described as its “toughest puzzle ever”. It seemed apt.

Regarded as a founder of computer science, Turing cracked Germany’s Enigma machine during the Second World War, but the puzzling circumstances surrounding his death have never been fully resolved.

In June 1954 Turing, who had been dragged through the courts for being a homosexual — and had agreed to undergo chemical castration to avoid imprisonment — was found dead in his bed with a half-eaten apple on his bedside table. He had died as the result of cyanide poisoning at the age of 41. An inquest determined that it was suicide, and although the fruit was never tested for the chemical compound, some later speculated that he had enacted a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, supposedly having had a fixation with the fairy tale.

Dermot Turing, 60, who is Alan Turing’s nephew and the author of a new book on him, Reflections of Alan Turing: A Relative Story, says that it’s a beguiling narrative. “The trauma of not only being tried, but being subjected to this hormone therapy — that must have disturbed the balance of his mind, so we should therefore not be surprised that he took his own life two years later. Let me confess, that is what I imagined actually happened until I looked into it.”

However, the truth, says the solicitor, is harder to fathom. Much of what we think we know about his uncle is a myth, he says, including the idea that he was the socially awkward, solitary and hard-nosed genius as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.

It was “a cracking good movie”, Dermot says from his family home in St Albans, but “it portrays him as being a victim and pathologically unable to form relationships. It also portrays him as someone who was very isolated and unable to achieve any of his work other than in a completely solitary environment. I believe all of those things to be completely and utterly wrong.”

Turing’s big breakthroughs were the result of his interactions with other people, he says. “The famous things, like the Bombe machine at Bletchley Park, were actually the fruits of teamwork.” Turing wasn’t unsociable, it was just that most other people, including his family, had no understanding of his interests. “Alan would be much happier in the pub with a beer talking to his mates about the capabilities of a computing machine he was working on than with my father’s sherry-drinking friends, interested in all things middle-class.”

Imitation vs. Reality

To Dermot’s father, John, Alan was the “annoying younger brother” and a source of embarrassment. He was particularly upset when his brother attended a soirée at his tennis club in Guildford, Surrey. “Alan turned up out of a sense of duty, but that duty didn’t go as far as having his trousers pressed or wearing a tie. Realizing he was completely out of place he turned on his heel and walked out after about 20 minutes.”

John and Alan’s father was in the Indian civil service, and for years they were farmed off to live with foster parents in England. In The Imitation Game, the younger Turing is tormented while a pupil at Sherborne — at one point he is nailed under the floorboards — but Dermot, who later attended the same school, dismisses the idea that he was being persecuted there. “I don’t think any of us would have fared particularly well in an English public school in the mid-1920s. The question is not, ‘Did bad things happen?’ The question is, ‘Was Alan singled out for some kind of evil treatment?’ And I find no evidence of that, not even in his letters home or indeed in what anybody else wrote about him.

“One of the themes we’ve got here, and it’s a false theme, is that Alan is somehow the nation’s victim, and that we should feel sorry for him. I think that he would have been disgusted and horrified by that idea.”

“Alan would be much happier in the pub with a beer talking to his mates about the capabilities of a computing machine he was working on than with my father’s sherry-drinking friends.”

While researching his book, Dermot came across some letters addressed to his grandmother, Ethel, who he says played a pivotal role in what is another myth that has grown around Alan’s death — that it may not have been suicide.

Ethel was holidaying in Italy when Alan died and was devastated by the news. To help his mother to manage her grief, Dermot says, his own father “basically marshaled a conspiracy of the willing” to gently encourage her to go along with the idea that it had been an accident (Turing apparently used cyanide in experiments he conducted at his home).

The undertaker, Alan’s psychiatrist and the family of Max Newman, Alan’s mentor at the University of Manchester, were all involved in the deception, he says, but there was an unexpected consequence. “My grandmother wrote her own biography of Alan in 1959 and it’s the kind of biography that every mother would write about their son. It’s very uncritical and leaves out lots of stuff, including awkward things like discussions of sexuality and criminal convictions or anything like that, so it’s half a biography.” It also propagated the idea that his death was an accident. “That’s what is up front and central, which has given more oxygen to the story.”

Dermot says that Ethel was a dominant figure in Alan’s life and his relationship with her is underlined by the disparity in formality with which he addressed his parents in letters, which all began: “Dear mother and daddy.”

The cousin of Edith and Florence Stoney, two female radiologists who were practicing before the First World War, Alan’s mother, he says, “was probably somebody who ought to have been a scientist in her own right. I think her father, my great-grandfather, thought it was unbecoming for young Victorian ladies to do anything like what these dirty cousins of theirs decided to do, so she was put on to the Indian civil service marriage market, which is where she met my grandfather.

“So I’ve got this picture of this frustrated would-have-been scientist who has now discovered she’s got a really quite high-achieving mathematician and scientist son and she wants a piece of the action. She wants to know what he’s doing and, of course, she’s a bit controlling about it, and she’s always been a bit controlling about him. The more she tries to find out, the more difficult the relationship becomes and the more he tries to run away from it.”

The difficult relationship between mother and son became brutally apparent shortly after Alan’s death.

“The horrid truth was when Alan died there were two priorities. One was to help my grandmother deal with her grief, and the other was to find the missing exercise book in which Alan’s psychiatrist was getting him to write down his dreams and other thoughts on things. If the exercise books that the psychiatrist already had in his possession were a clue to what was going to be in the missing one then it was going to be an outpouring of really quite negative feelings that Alan had about his own mother,” Dermot said.

Before Ethel was able to go through Alan’s belongings, his psychiatrist Dr Franz Greenbaum, John, and Alan’s close friend Robin Gandy frantically searched Alan’s house in a bid to stop it from falling into his mother’s possession.

“Everybody wanted to make sure that this toxic material was not allowed anywhere near my grandmother. This exercise book absolutely had to be found at all costs because if she had stumbled across it, let’s just say that the outcome wouldn’t have been good,” Dermot says. The notebook was found and was destroyed by Greenbaum along with the other exercise books.

“One of the themes we’ve got here, and it’s a false theme, is that Alan is somehow the nation’s victim, and that we should feel sorry for him. I think that he would have been disgusted and horrified by that idea.”

Dermot said that Alan’s psychiatrist, with whom Alan had a very close relationship, was surprised by the sudden death. “We have to remember that Alan had a great relationship with his psychiatrist, and he was seeing him very regularly and I don’t think the psychiatrist was expecting this. If he was still around to talk about it, I’m sure he’d have some very interesting opinions.”

Dermot doesn’t underestimate how difficult his trial would have been for his uncle, yet he says: “We are led to imagine that the state hung Alan out to dry, but that’s not true. His colleagues at GCHQ and Manchester University came and spoke in his defense and were instrumental in convincing the judge not to send Alan to prison — which would have cost him his job. They kept him out of prison by the expedient of having him put out on probation and that was actually a win.”

He believes that Alan’s life “really started going wrong” after he was put on hormone therapy. “He went into the loony system of mental health that existed in the early 1950s, which treated homosexuality as some kind of mental condition. They started treating him as a lab rat, and I don’t know what they were trying to do. Whether they were trying to cure him of homosexuality or whether they were trying to cure him of having any form of sexuality.

“He said he was growing breasts, which is pretty grim when you think about it. But what I found very positive about all that is that where many people would have been driven to depression his response was to brush it off as a bit of a joke. I think that’s partly the old ‘British stiff upper lip’ coming out, but there aren’t any letters which survive which indicate that he was affected badly by it, mentally.”

What he does know is that when Alan died in 1954, he had been free of synthetic hormones for a year. “I think he was defiant and most certainly not going to let these things get the better of him. What was much scarier for him, in my opinion, was the feeling that the police were out to get him.”

Ultimately, Dermot believes that continually dwelling on what led to his uncle’s death undermines his legacy. “I would much rather say that Alan is not about the past, he is about the future. He was trying to invent things for years to come,” he says. “I think this £50 note business gives us a real opportunity to have a sensible discussion about what Alan Turing would stand for in society today. It turns out he was involved in helping one of the world’s first PhD students in computer science with her thesis, and not only was she one of the world’s first people to get involved in computer science — she was a woman!

“And yet we find that nearly 70 years later, we have massive underrepresentation of women in computer science. Only 19 percent of students are women. I think he would have been quite appalled by that.”

Dermot has a daily reminder of his uncle — he has Jordon Sokol’s “amazing” portrait of Alan as the desktop background on his computer and a picture of him by Justin Eagleton in his office. But family heirlooms are thin on the ground. “He died in 1954 and he didn’t have a great deal of stuff anyway, and next to nothing which anyone wanted to preserve.”

Occasionally, though, things do crop up. Four years ago, a trove of 150 letters belonging to Turing were discovered in an old filing cabinet at the University of Manchester, where he had been a director of the computing laboratory. Other pieces in the Turing puzzle remain buried, says Dermot, recounting an anecdote that his father was particularly amused by.

“The story is that when everyone thought Britain was going to be invaded in 1940, just after the fall of France, Alan withdrew his savings from the bank and converted them into silver ingots because he thought the pound would become worthless if the Germans took charge. The ingots were buried somewhere not far from Bletchley and he made a sketch map so he could retrieve them in due course.

“After the war was over he went back with his friend Donald Michie (who became an AI professor) and a homemade metal detector but the ingots were never found. Someone is sitting on a fortune somewhere.”

Reflections of Alan Turing: A Relative Story, by Dermot Turing, is out now in the U.K. The book will be published in the U.S. later this year

Hana Carter’s writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times of London