African-American Pioneers in Science

Charles Henry Turner (1867 - 1923)

Charles Henry Turner Photo
Photo Credit: webfiles.uci.edu

Biologist, Entomologist

Birthplace

Cincinnati, Ohio

Education

B.S and M.S. Biology, University of Cincinnati
Ph.D. Zoology, University of Chicago

Profile
  • Charles Henry Turner
  • African-American pioneer in entomology (study of insects)
  • First African-American to earn Ph.D. in zoology (1907)
  • Performed ground-breaking work on behavior and learning abilities of insects

Entomologist Charles Henry Turner was born on February 3, 1867 in Cincinnati Ohio. His father, Thomas, was a church custodian and mother, Adeline, was a practical nurse. In high school, Turner was class valedictorian. He went on to study science at the University of Cincinnati where he earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees (both in Biology) in 1891 and 1892 respectively. Turner held various teaching positions including being appointed, in 1893, professor and department head at Clark College (now Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia). In 1905, he left Clark for Chicago where in 1907 he earned his Ph.D. in Zoology - becoming the first African-American to earn a Ph.D in Zoology as well as the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.


After receiving his Ph.D., due to discrimination, Dr. Turner was unable to get a teaching or research position at the University of Chicago (or any other major university). For a short period thereafter, he taught biology at several high schools before settling in St. Louis where he joined the staff at Sumner High School teaching biology and focusing on his research. While working on his doctorate at the University of Chicago, Dr. Turner had developed an interest in insect auditory and visual senses and learning abilities. Dealing with almost no access to research and lab facilities, Dr. Turner nevertheless was able to conduct experiments and was the first to demonstrate:
- Insects could hear and distinguish pitch
- Insects have the ability to learn by trial and error and can modify their behavior based on past experience
- Honeybees can identify certain colors, patterns and smells
Up to this point in time, the body of knowledge of insect behavior suggested that their behavior was driven solely by their response to specific stimuli.


During his 30+ year career, Dr. Turner published over 70 papers and was considered the authority on insect behavioral patterns.