My Brother, the Genius

John Turing's meditation on the life of his younger brother Alan. "He lived ... in some strange world of his own, full of nervous tensions of which we lesser mortals know nothing."

John Turing's meditation on the life of his younger brother Alan. "He lived ... in some strange world of his own, full of nervous tensions of which we lesser mortals know nothing."

The chapel at King's College, Cambridge, where Alan Turing attended university. (seier+seier/Flickr)

Editor's note: The following is adapted from an essay by John Turing, Alan Turing's older brother. It was recently included in the centenary edition of Alan M. Turing, a biography by John and Alan's mother, Sara, published originally in 1959. John wrote this account in the '60s and '70s, in part to correct what he saw as inaccuracies in his mother's account. In the selection below, John considers his brother's personal side.

My mother gives a true picture of Alan's generosity. Alan gave his time and brains unstintingly to his friends, paid for the schooling of a boy whom he more or less adopted, spent hours choosing suitable presents for his relations and friends, without regard to expense, and was incredibly patient with and endearing to small children, with whom he would have interesting conversations about the nature of God and other daunting subjects. All this is true to life and every word that my mother has written about it is true.

To my mind, it would have been fairer to Alan and made him more understandable to those who did not know him if my mother had mentioned some matters which contrasted sharply with his many virtues. My mother implies that his many eccentricities, divagations from normal behaviour and the rest were some kind of emanation of his genius. I do not think so at all. In my view, these things were the result of his insecurity as a child, not only in those early days at the Wards, but later on as his mother nagged and badgered him. This, however, is all theory which I am content to leave to the psychologists.

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I am concerned only with Alan's behaviour as it affected other people and it was not, in my view, so amusing for those who were at the receiving end. I will give a few examples. Alan would descend upon any household at any moment of the day or night with or without warning and seldom with more than a few hours' notice. (When he was stationed at Teddington after the war, he discovered that the distance to Guildford corresponded roughly with the marathon distance, so the first we knew of his impending arrival was a badly made parcel containing a change of clothing. About twelve noon, he would come running up the steep hill of Jenner Road and straight up the stairs and into a bath.) Alan hardly ever wrote a letter to his relatives. I understand that he carried on a huge correspondence with the other eleven mathematical pundits all over the world, the Japanese included, but all we rated was a postcard, usually arriving a day late, or the inevitable telegram. Alan was great on telegrams. "Arriving today" (not specifying exact date or time but well within the allotted shilling) was typical. My mother received loads of telegrams of this sort and they drove her wild, but nobody reading her book would think so.

Alan could not stand social chat or what he was pleased to call "vapid conversation." What he really liked was a thoroughly disputatious exchange of views. It was pretty tiring, really. You could take a safe bet that if you ventured on some self-evident proposition, as, for example, that the earth was round, Alan would produce a great deal of incontrovertible evidence to prove that it was almost certainly flat, ovular or much the same shape as a Siamese cat which had been boiled for fifteen minutes at a temperature of one thousand degrees Centigrade.

Alan's hatred of "vapid conversation," his fear of "unsafe" women and the value he placed on the importance of time -- that is to say, his own -- did not make him the most amiable or helpful of guests.

I made the great mistake, once, of inviting him to a sherry party at my house. As a matter of fact, I find this sort of occasion pretty boring myself, but that is by the way. Alan arrived nearly an hour late, dressed like a tramp (hippies had not then been invented) and vanished within ten minutes without a word of apology or excuse. It was a silent and, perhaps, well-merited comment on our frivolous life. Frankly, I wished I could have done the same and I greatly envied him for having achieved a modus vivendi in which the feelings of others counted for so little.

The photographs in my mother's book are excellent and show him exactly as he was. He was a most attractive small boy: the photographs of him in his sailor suit (horrors!) are my favourites.

Nor can I complain of the passage in my mother's book where she describes how he looked as a man, for the very good reason that her draft of this chapter was one of the few that she showed me and I thought her portrayal of him so preposterous that I rewrote it in less glowing terms and she actually substituted my version.

All the same, I was not invited to paint him, as it were, warts and all; writing other people's scripts is, like politics, the art of the possible. Someone wrote a clerihew which ran, more or less, as follows:

Must have been alluring
To get made a don
So early on.

I won't vouch for the exact text but the point of it (which naturally my mother missed) was not so much that he was made a don at the incredibly early age of 23, but that he was -- to some people, anyway -- anything but alluring.

I am not, of course, referring to Alan's shabby clothes, although he might have been more alluring if they had occasionally been sent to the cleaners. He lived, as I suppose is the lot of most geniuses, in some strange world of his own, full of nervous tensions of which we lesser mortals know nothing.

Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition, by Sara Turing
Copyright © 1959, 2012 S. Turing. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.