Charles Henry Turner, a ground-breaking zoologist

March 4, 2023 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.


Decades before the world had ever heard of the great entomologist and writer E.O. Wilson, Charles Henry Turner was taking a close look at the behavior of insects, particularly ants and bees.

Turner’s observations and discoveries about the social instincts and behavior of insects would set the stage for much of the scientific exploration by Wilson and others that was to occur during the 20th century.

Turner rarely gets the credit that he is due for his groundbreaking research in this area. In great part, that is due to the fact that he was born in 1867 and was an African-American. His skin color prevented him from obtaining the academic position that he deserved, but it did not in any way dampen his enthusiasm for finding out what made the little critters around us tick.

Born to working-class parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, Turner graduated as valedictorian from Woodward High School in 1886. He went from there to the University of Cincinnati and obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1891. A summary of his undergraduate thesis on the neuroanatomy of bird brains was published in the journal Science in 1891. He was the first African-American to have an article in that publication.

In 1892, he earned a master’s degree in science, also from the University of Cincinnati, and he remained at that university for another year as an assistant instructor in the biology laboratory. He went from there to Denison University to work on his doctorate. He did not complete his degree, however, because his program of study was discontinued.

Turner held several teaching positions at various schools, including Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, for the next dozen or so years. He then went to the University of Chicago where he earned a doctorate in zoology in 1907.

Collegiate teaching positions were extremely rare for African-Americans at that time, and Turner and his new wife, Lillian Porter, finally settled in St. Louis in 1908, where he taught science at Sumner High School. He stayed there until his retirement in 1922.

Despite the restrictions imposed upon him because of his race to research libraries and laboratories, Turner was determined to follow his dream of finding out about the habits of vertebrates and invertebrates. During his 33-year career, he published more than 70 papers on a wide variety of topics in this area.

Turner looked at how insects navigate, the way in which they feign deaths, and many aspects of how they learn. He was likely the first investigator to apply Pavlovian conditioning to the invertebrates that he studied. He also discovered color recognition among honeybees, and looked at how cockroaches trained to avoid dark chambers. Much of his research challenged the traditional thinking about what insects did and how they responded to their environment. One of his major discoveries was the fact that insects use experience to modify their behavior.

In addition to his scientific work, Turner was an advocate for increased civil rights and better educational opportunities for all people. He believed that the answer to racism was education.

Turner retired from his teaching job in 1920 because of ill health. He died at the home of his son in Chicago in 1923. He was 56 years old.

Since his death, numerous schools in the St. Louis area have carried the name Turner in honor of his life and his work.

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