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Charles Henry Turner (zoologist) facts for kids

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Charles Henry Turner
Prof. Charles Henry Turner.jpg
Charles Henry Turner aged about 35
Born February 3, 1867
Died February 14, 1923 (1923-02-15) (aged 56)
Nationality American
Scientific career
Fields Zoology

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. 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.


Personal life

Charles Henry Turner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 3, 1867. Notably, his birth came two years after the end of the Civil War. He was born to parents Thomas Turner, a church custodian, and Addie Campbell, a nurse. He married Leontine Troy in 1886. They had three children; Henry Owen Turner (1892–1956), Louise Mae Turner (1892,1894-?), and Darwin Romanes Turner (1894–1983). Leontine died in 1895, and Turner married Lillian Porter in 1907 or 1908. Lillian survived her husband, who died in Chicago on 14 February 1923, from acute myocarditis. He was buried in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery.

Charles Henry Turner was the grandfather of Boston City Councillor and community organizer Chuck Turner.

Academic career

In 1886, Turner graduated valedictorian of Woodard High School, marking the start of his academic career. He entered the University of Cincinnati in 1886 and graduated with BS degree in biology in 1891. During his undergraduate education, he was mentored by early comparative psychologist and biologist, Clarence L. Herrick. A summary of his undergraduate thesis on the neuroanatomy of bird brains was published in the journal Science in 1891, making him the first African American to be so recognized.

Turner earned an MS degree in 1892 from the University of Cincinnati under his undergraduate advisor, Herrick. After receiving his degree, he remained at U Cincinnati as assistant instructor in the biology laboratory until 1893. Turner began a PhD at Denison University from 1893–1894, but the program was discontinued. He attained a professorship in the Science Department at Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he also served as Chair of the Science Department. The Turner-Tanner Hall at Clark University is now named in his honor. Sources fail to determine his length of service, but it is estimated that he was at Clark sometime between 1893 until 1905.

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. 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. While he was teaching, he continued to study insect behavior, and also pursued a 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. He was the third African American person to receive an advanced degree from the University of Chicago, and possibly the first to receive a doctorate. He was advised by zoologists Charles M. Child, Frank R. Lillie, and Charles O. Whitman.

In 1908, Turner gained a teaching position at Sumner High School, where he remained until his retirement in 1922 due to ill health. 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.

Scientific contributions

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". Much of his research was conducted while he was teaching high school classes at Sumner; while there, he published 41 papers between 1908 and his death. Notably, Turner published three times in the journal Science. 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. 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. 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, in a time when most scientists believed that animals such as insects were exclusively driven by reflexive taxis, innate reactions to external stimuli). 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.

Other contributions

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; it was later renamed as Turner Middle School.

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