Historical Significance of Prostate Cancer Treatment for Gay & Bisexual Men

Publish Date: 06/11/2013



Sean Ralph is a therapy radiographer in the NHS who has written many articles on the subject  of Prostate Cancer and how it affects gay and bisexual men. Here he looks at what  some treatments for the condition have in common with historical attempts to 'cure' men of their homosexuality.


British mathematician Alan Turing, OBE, FRS (23rd June 1912 - 7th June 1954) is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

During World War II he worked full-time for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain's code breaking centre, where he was head of Hut 8, the section responsible intercepting and decrypting German naval communications. He devised a number of techniques for breaking codes, most notably the bombe, an electromechanical device that was used to decipher secret messages encrypted by the German Enigma machine.

When the war ended, Turing worked for the National Physical Laboratory (1945-1948) where he drew up plans to develop a machine that could logically process information. This would have been the world’s first ever digital computer, but his plans were dismissed by his colleagues and so the lab and Turing lost out on this accolade. He then went on to direct the computing laboratory at Manchester University (1949) where he worked on projects that formed the basis of the field of artificial intelligence that we are today all-too-familiar with.

In 1952, Turing was arrested and tried for homosexuality, then a criminal offence. As an alternative to prison, he accepted injections of Stilboestrol (chemical castration), a synthetic oestrogen, that was intended to switch off his libido and cure him of his homosexuality. This treatment eventually made him impotent and caused gynaecomastia, fulfilling Turing’s own predictions in a letter to a friend “No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.”

In that era, homosexuals with access to sensitive government information were considered a security risk as they were open to blackmail from Soviet spies. Turing's security clearance was therefore revoked, meaning he could no longer work for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the post-war successor to Bletchley Park.

He committed suicide on June 7th 1954 by eating an apple that is thought to have been dipped in a cyanide solution, which his memorial statue in Sackville Gardens, Manchester, can be seen holding in its right hand. 

Martin Wells, Chairman of the support group Out with Prostate Cancer, was born in 1954 the year of Turing’s suicide. In 2007 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and subsequently underwent a radical prostatectomy. Unfortunately not all of his cancer was removed during the operation so Martin underwent further treatment with radiotherapy and hormone therapy. Hormone therapy for prostate cancer stops the testis from producing testosterone, which stimulates the growth of prostate cancer. This slowly switched off Martin’s libido causing him great distress.

“After three months... I was suddenly aware... I’d not had... A horny thought... And that really upset me. Was I going to be like this for the rest of my life?” Martin reminded himself of Alan Turing’s words “No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man ,but quite who I’ve not found out”.   

The synthetic oestrogen Stilboestrol, that was used to chemically castrate Alan Turing, was the first effective drug for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer. It remained the gold standard treatment for advanced prostate cancer for over 40 years until the mid 1980s when more sophisticated gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists were found to be more effective. To this day Stilboestrol is still used as second-line hormone therapy for advanced prostate cancer that is no longer responding to gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists.

Gay and bisexual men in the UK being treated with hormone therapy for prostate cancer may have undergone a similar treatment at a younger age to cure them of their homosexuality. Hormone therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer therefore has a historical significance for gay and bisexual men, which may need to be taken into account by health professionals when counselling this group of patients.

In some countries chemical castration is still used to treat homosexuality as well as prostate cancer and is therefore not just of historical significance globally.

Help raise funds to provide information for gay and bisexual men affected by Prostate Cancer and other Male Cancers here