Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) was born in Cincinnati, OH to Thomas Turner, church custodian, and Addie Campbell, nurse. In a turbulent post-Reconstruction America, Cincinnati provided a safe community for black families to live, work, and learn. Turner was provided a decent education even graduating as valedictorian of his high school. He then attended the University of Cincinnati and received a B.S. in Biology in 1891 writing his thesis on the morphology of avian brains. Turner continued his education at the University of Cincinnati earning a M.S. in 1892. That same year Turner became the first African American to publish an article, which was based on his undergraduate thesis, in the journal Science. While a graduate student, Clarence L. Herrick (Turner’s mentor) felt the need to ask Turner’s contemporaries if they would allow a person of color to attend the weekly lab meetings. Turner’s white peers accepted him at the meetings, but his mentor’s pause shows the racial environment that disadvantaged Turner’s abilities to access science.
Between 1893 and 1908, Turner unsuccessfully attempted to establish an academic position to pursue his primary interests in entomology and cognitive psychology. He applied to Tuskegee Institute in 1893 only to be rejected by Booker T. Washington because with George Washington Carver already on staff, he couldn’t afford Turner’s salary. He accepted a professorship at Clark University in Atlanta, but as W.E.B. DuBois describes it “had at the time about a dozen college students, no laboratories and few books. He received inadequate pay and a heavy teaching load….” Eventually, Turner left or was fired from Clark (which honors his tenure there with the Tanner-Turner Hall) pursuing various academic positions to make a living and become among the first African Americans to earn his Ph. D in Zoology at the University of Chicago. There is some debate as to what happened next. He was offered a position at the University of Chicago after receiving his doctorate, but, again according to DuBois, the professor who wanted him had died and the successor didn’t want him there, using a racial epithet to dismiss his academic prowess. Another account of the events suggests that Dr. Turner turned down the position to work at an all-black high school in St. Louis where he said “I can do more for my people.” Ultimately, whether by choice or racist exclusion, Dr. Turner ended up as a science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Mo, where taught until health issues caused him to retire.
Despite Dr. Turner’s inability to secure an academic position with graduate students and a proper laboratory, he was quite prolific in his scientific pursuits. He published around 71 papers in his life, three of which were published in the journal Science. In fact, during his time at Sumner, his rate of publication was higher than his contemporaries in university positions and he had no assistants. The research he wrote was primarily concerned with insect behavior, but included subjects such as education, natural history, and civil rights. Among his achievements, Dr. Turner was the first to successfully demonstrate that honey bees can see colors and patterns, can learn, and create memories. He showed that cockroaches can change their behavior based on types of reflex conditioning similar to Pavlov’s work with dogs. He also showed that moths can hear sounds and distinguish pitch, ants have a particular circling behavior as they return to their nests (dubbed the Turner’s Circle by a French naturalist contemporary of his), and descriptions of many other behaviors in the natural world. His work turned the understanding of insect as stimulus-response, instinctual robots into organisms that learn and can adjust their behavior to new situations. The most fascinating aspect of Dr. Turner’s work was his methods and discipline. As with his conditioning experiments, he was ahead of his time in using strict controls in observing insect behavior, using replication of experiments to solidify the findings of his research, and observing behavioral differences based on sex and age.
Dr. Charles Henry Turner died in February of 1923 in Chicago after moving in with his son, Darwin, due to poor health. He is interred at Lincoln Cemetery and the epitaph on his grave stone simply and appropriately reads “Scientist.”
Feature Image By Unknown photographer – Twentieth Century Negro Literature http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/18772, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1018469