The Turing Problem (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

While the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-1) was released in 1952, the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder was already firmly in place as far as mental health professionals were concerned.  Although  psychoanalysis had shown little value in the treatment of homosexuality, advances in medical science made more radical alternatives possible.   The existence of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone had been known since the 19th century but it was only when they were first chemically synthesized in the 1920s that true hormone therapy began.   Despite physical castration of convicted sex offenders (including homosexuals) having a long history, the use of hormone therapy for treating undesirable sexual practices was far more experimental.  Known as "chemical castration" (a very misleading term by the way), the first study in using sex hormones to control homosexual behaviour was conducted by a team of American researchers in 1940.  

After examining testosterone and estrogen levels in convicted homosexuals, the researchers concluded that homosexuals had significantly lower male sex hormones than heterosexuals (though the small sample size used makes this finding suspect).  In the paper they released that same year, the researchers noted that "if a biologic etiology were established, this would lead to investigation of therapeutic possibilities from a much wider perspective than now exists."    In other words, sex hormone therapy could provide the long sought-for "cure" for homosexuality.

Based on these initial findings, the lead researcher, S.J. Glass, conducted further research involving treatment of eleven homosexuals using male hormones "kindly supplied"  by pharmaceutical companies.   The use of the experimental treatment was compulsory for many of the subjects in the study (three were underaged boys) and the results, published in 1944, were not considered successful.   According to Glass,  "Only three of the subjects reported benefit from this therapy. Five reported an intensification of the homosexual drive.'  It did not help in 'the clinical management of the male homosexual."   Since testosterone showed no benefit, researchers hit on the bright notion of using female hormones instead.  

A 1940 study had already shown that estrogen treatment of males resulted in an almost total suppression of libido.  Physical castration for sex offenders was already  accepted practice in many U.S. states (by 1950, there were an estimated 50,000 castrated sex offenders on record) but British law banned the use of castration for punitive purposes. Given the existence of a chemical equivalent, authorities considered it to be  an intriguing option for dealing with convicted homosexuals. 

 In a 1949 paper,  F.L. Golla and his colleagues presented the results obtained from a sample of thirteen convicted homosexuals and concluded that "libido could be abolished within a month" with sufficiently high dosages of female sex hormones.   The authors concluded that "in view of the non-mutilating nature of this treatment and the ease with which it can be administered to a consenting patient we believe that it should be adopted whenever possible in male cases of abnormal and uncontrollable sexual urge".    Politicians and newspaper editorials alike praised the potential value of hormonal therapy.  While critics warned that there was still too many unknowns involving the treatment, the potential gain was felt to be worth the risks involved.  Controlling "unnatural" sexual urges with hormone treatments fit in well with the  radical advances being made in other areas of psychiatry.  Considering other types of experimental treatment being tried (including aversive conditioning, lobotomies, and electroconvulsive therapy), such treatment seemed relatively benign.

In Alan Turing's case, taking female hormones to control his sexual urges was actually voluntary.  When his lawyer explained the different legal options open to him (including imprisonment), Turing decided that taking the medication was the best way to stay out of jail and continue his research.   Given his status as a prominent mathematician and a member of the Order of the British Empire (which he retained despite his conviction), there was considerable media coverage of his case.  After he was placed on probation, local newspapers carried headlines such as "University Reader Put on Probation:  To Have Organo-Therapeutic Treatment".   If Turing was bothered by the publicity, he made little mention of it to his friends.  The probation order required him to stay on the medication for only one year. 

In a letter to fellow mathematician, Philip Hall, he wrote that:

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. The psychiatrists seemed to think it useless to try and do any psychotherapy. The day of the trial was by no means disagreeable. Whilst in custody with the other criminals I had a very agreeable sense of irresponsibility, rather like being back at school. The warders rather like prefects. I was also quite glad to see my accomplice again, though I didn't trust him an inch

The conviction also meant a permanent ban on his traveling to many countries, including the United States ("moral turpitude" was considered grounds for denying entrance).   His security clearance was also revoked which ended his cryptographic work.  Although Alan Turing took these various obstacles in stride, he was especially disturbed by the side effects of the medication he was taking during his probation.  Along with the impotence, which he had been assured was only temporary, he also began experiencing other side effects.  Gynecomastia (breast swelling), mood changes, and overall "feminization" are common symptoms in men taking estrogen supplements.  Despite the hardships, Alan Turing continued with his professional work (and even managed a brief affair with a Danish man he had met on holiday).   Despite the distress over the various medical issues stemming from the medication, he completed his probation year without incident.

By early 1953, his future seemed bright.   Not only did the probation period end in April and the medication discontinued, but the University of Manchester voted to create a formal five-year Readership position just for him.  His private life seemed secure and homosexuality in general appeared more tolerated than ever.

Which was why his suicide on June 7, 1954 came as a shock to everyone who knew him.

Continue to Part 3.


Related Stories

  • The Turing Problem (Part 1)
  • The Turing Problem (Part 3)
  • Sexual Discounting and High-Risk Behaviour


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