Charles Henry Turner (zoologist)

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Charles Henry Turner
Turner in 1921
BornFebruary 3, 1867
DiedFebruary 14, 1923 (1923-02-15) (aged 56)
Resting placeLincoln Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Leontine Troy
(m. 1886; died 1895)
  • Lillian Porter (m. 1907 or 1908)
Scientific career

Charles Henry Turner (February 3, 1867 – February 14, 1923) was an American zoologist, entomologist, educator, and comparative psychologist, known for his studies on the behavior of insects, particularly bees and ants. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Turner was the first African American to receive a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati and most likely the first African American to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago.[1] He spent most of his career as a high school teacher in Sumner High School in St. Louis.[2] Turner was one of the first scientists to systematically examine the question of whether animals display complex cognition, studying arthropods such as spiders and bees. He also examined differences in behavior between individuals within a species, a precursor to the study of animal personality.[3]


Personal life[edit]

Charles Henry Turner aged about 35

Charles Henry Turner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 3, 1867.[1] He was born to parents Thomas Turner, a church custodian, and Addie Campbell, a nurse from Lexington, Kentucky.[4] His father had moved from Alberta to Cincinnati. He married Leontine Troy in 1886. They had three children; Henry Owen Turner (1892–1956), Louise Mae Turner (1892,1894-?), and Darwin Romanes Turner (1894–1983).[5] Leontine died in 1895, and Turner married Lillian Porter in 1907 or 1908.[1] Lillian survived her husband, who died in Chicago at his son Darwin's home on 14 February 1923, from acute myocarditis.[1] He was buried in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery.[1] Charles Henry Turner was the grandfather of Boston City Councillor and community organizer Chuck Turner.[6]

Academic career[edit]

In 1886, Turner graduated valedictorian of Woodard High School, marking the start of his academic career.[4] He entered the University of Cincinnati in 1886 and graduated with B.S. degree in biology in 1891.[7] Turner's mentor, early comparative psychologist and biologist, Clarence L. Herrick, helped him earn his bachelor's degree.[8] A summary of his undergraduate thesis on the neuroanatomy of bird brains was published in the journal Science in 1891, making him the first African American to be so recognized.[1][9][10]

Turner earned an M.S. in 1892 from the University of Cincinnati under his undergraduate advisor, Herrick.[1][11] After receiving his degree, he remained at the university as assistant instructor in the biology laboratory until 1893.[4] Turner studied for a Ph.D. at Denison University from 1893 to 1894, but the program was discontinued.[1][12] He attained a professorship in the Science Department at Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he also served as Chair of the Science Department.[13] The Turner-Tanner Hall at Clark University is now named in his honor.[14] Sources fail to determine his length of service, but it is estimated that he was at Clark sometime between 1893 until 1905.[1]

After his time at Clark University, Turner had his first career experience at a high school in 1906 when he obtained a position as the principal of College Hill High School in Cleveland, Tennessee.[8] He then resigned the position in order to pursue a professorship in biology and chemistry at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia in 1907.[15] While he was teaching, he continued to study insect behavior,[15] and also pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He spent the 1906–1907 academic year and the summer of 1906 working on his doctoral degree before graduating magna cum laude in 1907.[1] He was the third African American person to receive an advanced degree from the University of Chicago, and among the first African Americans to receive a doctorate from that university (older doctorates included Edward Bouchet (1876) from Yale and W. E. B. Du Bois (1895) from Harvard).[11] During the Seventh International Zoological Congress, Turner was a delegate.[2] He was advised by zoologists Charles M. Child, Frank R. Lillie, and Charles O. Whitman.[1]

In 1908, Turner gained a teaching position at Sumner High School, where he remained until his retirement in 1922 due to ill health.[1][15] It is somewhat contested whether Turner chose to teach in high school or if he was unable to find a permanent position in academia. Between 1893 and 1908, Turner applied for a position at the Tuskegee Institute. Charles I. Abramson, in his 2003 article on Turner for the American Bee Journal, claims that Turner was unable, rather than unwilling, to get an appointment at the University of Chicago, and that the Tuskegee Institute could not afford his salary.[1]

Scientific contribution Turner published 49 papers on invertebrates, including "Habits of Mound-Building Ants", "Experiments on the Color Vision of the Honeybee", "Hunting Habits of an American Sand Wasp", and "Psychological Notes on the Gallery Spider".[16] He concluded from the variations seen in spider web construction that the details in the construction involved intelligence rather than mere instinct as then attributed.[17] Much of his research was conducted while he was teaching high school classes at Sumner; while there, he published 41 papers between 1908 and his death.[1] Notably, Turner published three times in the journal Science.[1] In his research, Turner became the first person to prove that insects can hear and can distinguish pitch. In addition, he first discovered that cockroaches can learn by trial and error and that honeybees can see visual patterns.[1][16] Although he attempted to demonstrate that bees were endowed with color vision capabilities, his experiments could not prove this as he used red cardboards to this end, which bees do not see as a color.[18] Yet, in doing these experiments, he advanced important principles of associative learning such as stimulus substitution, the fact that a conditioning stimulus becomes a reliable predictor of an unconditioned stimulus. Turner's work was different from the majority of scientists of his time as he clearly adopted a cognitive perspective to analyze animal behavior.[3] He used concepts such as learning, memory and expectation, in a time when most scientists believed that animals such as insects were exclusively driven by reflexive taxis, innate reactions to external stimuli.[18][19] This cognitive view would only reemerge much later in studies of animal behavior.[3]

Turner conducted a large majority of his bee research at O'Fallon Park in North St. Louis, Missouri.[7]

Selected publications include:

  • Turner, C H (1 January 1892). "A Grape Vine Produces Two Sets of Leaves During the Same Season". Science. 20 (493): 39. doi:10.1126/science.ns-20.493.39.a. PMID 17753853. S2CID 239877691.
  • Turner, C H (1892). "Psychological notes upon the gallery spider—illustrations of intelligent variations in the construction of the web". Journal of Comparative Neurology. 2 (1): 95–110. doi:10.1002/cne.910020112. S2CID 84714595.
  • Turner, Charles Henry (1907). The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior. University of Chicago Press. p. 434.
Cited by, among a great many others:


Besides his scientific work, Turner was active in the struggle to obtain social and educational services for African Americans in St. Louis, Missouri. Two years after his death, The Charles Henry Turner Open Air School for Crippled Children was founded; it was later renamed as Turner Middle School.[7][20] To honor Turner, the Animal Behavior Society named its undergraduate diversity program after him.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Abramson, Charles I. (January 2009). "A Study in Inspiration: Charles Henry Turner (1867–1923) and the Investigation of Insect Behavior". Annual Review of Entomology. 54 (1): 343–359. doi:10.1146/annurev.ento.54.110807.090502. PMID 18817509.
  2. ^ a b "Charles Henry Turner". Retrieved 7 December 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Katsnelson, Alla (2 August 2023). "Charles Henry Turner's insights into animal behavior were a century ahead of their time". Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews. doi:10.1146/knowable-080223-1. Retrieved 20 September 2023.
  4. ^ a b c "CHT - Timeline". Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  5. ^ Dewsbury, Donald A.; Benjamin, Ludy T. Jr.; Wertheimer, Michael (3 June 2014). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology: Volume VI. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-317-82894-5.
  6. ^ "Charles "Chuck" Turner's Biography". The HistoryMakers. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d DNLee. "Charles Henry Turner, Animal Behavior Scientist". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 7 December 2018.
  8. ^ a b Cullen, Katherine E. (2006). Biology: The People Behind the Science. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8160-7221-7.
  9. ^ Turner, C H (1 January 1892). "A Few Characteristics of the Avian Brain". Science. 19 (466): 16–17. Bibcode:1892Sci....19...16T. doi:10.1126/science.ns-19.466.16. PMID 17774142.
  10. ^ Edward D Melillo (29 July 2022). "The little-known Black high-school science teacher who revolutionized the study of insect behavior in the early 20th century". The Conversation. Retrieved 18 August 2022.
  11. ^ a b Abramson, Charles I. (2 February 2017). "Charles Henry Turner remembered". Nature. 542 (7639): 31. doi:10.1038/542031d. PMID 28150772. S2CID 36020845.
  12. ^ Greenberg, G.; Tobach, E. (22 May 2014). Behavioral Evolution and Integrative Levels: The T.c. Schneirla Conferences Series, Volume 1. Psychology Press blss=beautiful black people. ISBN 978-1-317-76889-0.
  13. ^ Magoun, H. W.; Marshall, L. (1 January 2003). American Neuroscience in the Twentieth Century. CRC Press. ISBN 978-90-265-1938-3.
  14. ^ Shaw, Charles E. (14 July 2011). The Untold Stories of Excellence: From a Life of Despair and Uncertainty to One that Offers Hope and a New Beginning. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4628-4907-9.
  15. ^ a b c Kessler, James H.; Morin, Katherine A; Kidd, J S; Kidd, Renee A. (1996). Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-89774-955-8.
  16. ^ a b Spangenburg, Ray; Moser, Diane; Long, Douglas (14 May 2014). African Americans in Science, Math, and Invention. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-0774-5.
  17. ^ Dona, Hiruni Samadi Galpayage; Chittka, Lars (2020-10-30). "Charles H. Turner, pioneer in animal cognition". Science. 370 (6516): 530–531. doi:10.1126/science.abd8754. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 33122372. S2CID 225956929.
  18. ^ a b Giurfa, Martin; de Brito Sanchez, Gabriela (2020). "Black Lives Matter: Revisiting Charles Henry Turner's experiments on honey bee color vision". Current Biology. 30 (20): R1235–R1239. Bibcode:2020CBio...30R1235G. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2020.08.075. S2CID 224775835.
  19. ^ Giurfa, Martin; Giurfa de Brito, Anaclara; Giurfa de Brito, Tiziana; de Brito Sanchez, Gabriela (2021). "Charles Henry Turner and the cognitive behavior of bees". Apidologie. 52 (20): 684–695. doi:10.1007/s13592-021-00855-9. PMC 8550279. PMID 34720237. S2CID 234860433.
  20. ^ Giurfa, Martin; Giurfa de Brito, Anaclara; Giurfa de Brito, Tiziana; de Brito Sanchez, Maria Gabriela (2021). "Charles Henry Turner and the cognitive behavior of bees". Apidologie. 52 (3): 684–695. doi:10.1007/s13592-021-00855-9. ISSN 0044-8435. PMC 8550279. PMID 34720237.

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