Charles Henry Turner (zoologist)

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Charles Henry Turner
Charles Henry Turner.jpg
Charles Henry Turner aged about 35
BornFebruary 3, 1867
DiedFebruary 14, 1923 (1923-02-15) (aged 56)
NationalityUnited States
Scientific career

Charles Henry Turner (February 3, 1867 – February 14, 1923) was an American zoologist, 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] Being a black man in the eighteen hundreds he was a victim of racism. He spent most of his career as a high school teacher in Sumner High School in St. Louis.[2]


Personal life[edit]

Charles Henry Turner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 3, 1867.[1] Notably, his birth came two years after the end of the Civil War. He was born to parents Thomas Turner and Addie Campbell, a church custodian and nurse, respectively.[3] He was married to Leontine Troy (1886) and the couple had three children; Henry Owen Turner (1892–1956), Louise Mae Turner (1892,1894-?), and Darwin Romanes Turner (1894–1983).[4] After the death of his first wife, Leontine Troy in 1895, Turner remarried Lillian Porter Turner sometime between 1907 and 1908.[1] The two remained married until Turner's death in 1923. He died on February 14, 1923 from  acute myocarditis  in  Chicago.[1] His place of interment is  Lincoln Cemetery  in Chicago.[1] He is the paternal grandfather of Boston City Councillor and community organizer Chuck Turner.[5]

Academic career[edit]

In 1886, Turner graduated valedictorian of Woodard High School, marking the start of his academic career.[3] He began college at the University of Cincinnati in 1886 and graduated with B.S. degree in biology in 1891.[6] During his undergraduate education, he was mentored by early comparative psychologist and biologist, Clarence L. Herrick.[7] A summary of his undergraduate thesis on the neuroanatomy of bird brains was published in the journal Science in 1891.[1][8] Tuner earned his M.S. degree in 1892 from the University of Cincinnati under his undergraduate advisor, Herrick.[1][9]

Immediately after earning his M.S., Turner served as an assistant instructor in the biology laboratory at the University of Cincinnati until 1893.[3] Turner began a PhD at Denison University from 1893–1894, but the program was discontinued.[1][10] He attained a professorship in the Science Department at Clark University in Atlanta, GA, where he also served as the Chair of the Science Department.[11] The Turner-Tanner Hall at Clark University is now named in his honor.[12] 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.[7] 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.[13] While he was teaching, he continued to study insect behavior.[13] During this period of time, Turner pursued his PhD in zoology at the University of Chicago. He spent the 1906–1907 academic year and the summer of 1906 working on his degree before graduating magna cum laude in 1907.[1] He was the third African American person to receive a PhD from the University of Chicago.[9][disputed ] 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][13] 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 1893–1908, Turner applied for a position at the Tuskegee Institute. Charles I. Abramson, in his 2003 article on Turner for 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 contributions[edit]

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".[14] A large amount of Turner's research was conducted while he was teaching high school classes at Sumner. While at Sumner, 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][14] Although he attempted to demonstrate that bees were endowed with color vision capabilities, his experiments could not prove this as he used red carboards to this end, which bees do not see as a color.[15] 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. He used concepts such as learning, memory and expectation, among others, in a time in which most scientists believed that animals such as insects were exclusively driven by reflexive taxis, innate reactions to external stimuli).[15][16] This cognitive view would only reemerge much later in studies of animal behavior.

Turner conducted a large majority of his bee research at O'Fallon Park in North St. Louis, Missouri.[6]

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. PMID 17753853.
  • 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:

Other contributions[edit]

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. The school was later renamed as Turner Middle School.[6]


  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. ^ "Charles Henry Turner". Retrieved 2018-12-07.
  3. ^ a b c "CHT - Timeline". Retrieved 2020-06-06.
  4. ^ Dewsbury, Donald A.; Jr, Ludy T. Benjamin; Wertheimer, Michael (2014-06-03). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology: Volume VI. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-317-82894-5.
  5. ^ "Charles "Chuck" Turner's Biography". The HistoryMakers. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  6. ^ a b c DNLee. "Charles Henry Turner, Animal Behavior Scientist". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 2018-12-07.
  7. ^ a b Cullen, Katherine E. (2006). Biology: The People Behind the Science. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8160-7221-7.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b Abramson, Charles I. (2 February 2017). "Charles Henry Turner remembered". Nature. 542 (7639): 31. doi:10.1038/542031d. PMID 28150772. S2CID 36020845.
  10. ^ Greenberg, G.; Tobach, E. (2014-05-22). Behavioral Evolution and Integrative Levels: The T.c. Schneirla Conferences Series, Volume 1. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-317-76889-0.
  11. ^ Magoun, H. W.; Marshall, L. (2003-01-01). American Neuroscience in the Twentieth Century. CRC Press. ISBN 978-90-265-1938-3.
  12. ^ Shaw, Charles E. (2011-07-14). 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ a b Spangenburg, Ray; Moser, Diane; Long, Douglas (2014-05-14). African Americans in Science, Math, and Invention. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-0774-5.
  15. ^ 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. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2020.08.075. S2CID 224775835.
  16. ^ 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. S2CID 234860433.

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