Who Was Charles Henry Turner?
Charles Henry Turner was a pioneering African American scientist and scholar. Among his most notable achievements, Turner was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago, and the first person to discover that insects can hear and alter behavior based on previous experience. He died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1923.
Background and Education
Pioneering African American scientist Charles Henry Turner was born on February 3, 1867, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father worked as a custodian and his mother was a practical nurse, and the young Turner was actively encouraged to read and learn.
Turner excelled at his studies, graduating from Gaines High School in 1886 as class valedictorian. He enrolled at the University of Cincinnati that same year, and in 1887, he wed Leontine Troy. The couple later had two sons, Henry and Darwin, before his wife's death in 1895.
Turner graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1891, and earned a master's degree from the University of Cincinnati the following year. During his studies, Turner found work as a teacher at a number of schools, and had an assistantship at his alma mater from 1891 to 1893.
Educator at Clark College
To help find a teaching position, Turner contacted Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (later Tuskegee University) in Alabama. Some reports indicate that Turner lost out on a position at the institute to George Washington Carver, another distinguished African American scientist. Instead Turner moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he taught at Clark College (later known as Clark Atlanta University) from 1893 to 1905.
In 1907, Turner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in zoology, becoming the first African American to receive such a degree from the institution. Shortly after being turned down for a teaching position at the University of Chicago, Turner moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught at Sumner High School until 1922.
During his career, Turner published more than 70 research papers. He pioneered research techniques in the study of animal behavior and made several important discoveries that advanced our understanding of the natural world. Among his most notable achievements, Turner was the first person to discover that insects can hear and alter behavior based on previous experience. He showed that insects were capable of learning, illustrating (in two of his most famous research projects) that honey bees can see in color and recognize patterns. He conducted some of these experiments while working at Sumner without the benefit of research assistants or laboratory space.
In 1922, Turner moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with his son Darwin. He died there on February 14, 1923. His last scientific paper was published the year after his death, in which he explored a method for conducting field research on fresh-water invertebrates.
Several schools have been named in Turner's honor in St. Louis, Missouri, the city where he spent so many years as a teacher. On the campus of Clark Atlanta University, he is remembered on the Tanner-Turner Hall building. And children have learned about his influential work though the 1997 children's book Bug Watching with Charles Henry Turner by M.E. Ross.
In recent years, his groundbreaking work has been reintroduced to the public through the publication of Selected Papers and Biography of Charles Henry Turner, Pioneer of Comparative Animal Behavior Studies (2003).
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