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Charles Henry Turner, Animal Behavior Scientist

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In celebration of Black History Month, I will be sharing stories about the African-American experience in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

For today’s feature, I am sharing a post previously published at Urban Science Adventures! ©.

Charles Turner was born in 1867 to newly freed slaves. He was raised and schooled in Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact he earned his undergraduate degree (B.S.) and graduate degree (M.S.) from the University of Cincinnati. In 1907 he earned his Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago. Moreover he was the first African-American to earn these advanced degrees from each institution.

Dr. Turner is indeed an academic Hero of mine and a Pioneering Innovator in my field of study, Animal Behavior. In fact, he published papers about insect behavior and navigation (as well as animal physiology) in journals like Animal Behaviour and Science Magazine, and is recorded as the first African-American to do so.

He served as chair of the Science Department and taught Biology at for a time at Clark University (now Clark-Atlanta University). Turner-Tanner Hall is named in his honor. He also inquired about a teaching and research position at Tuskegee Institute. However, it is said that Booker T. Washington was unable to pay the salary of two distinguished science professors, since George Washington Carver was already on faculty. However, he eventually settled in St. Louis, Missouri and taught at Sumner High School, the first high school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River (in the United States). Though many documents record him as teaching biology at the high school, Sumner was also a Normal School, akin to a Teachers College, and he may have taught college or preparatory science courses, too. Regardless, Dr. Turner maintained scientific productivity, conducting research and writing papers on various subjects.

Of special note is his work with Hymenopterabees and ants and how they navigate and communicate. He conducted his groundbreaking research on honey bee memory, color-vision ability, communication and navigation at O’Fallon Park, in North St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Turner believed that bees may be creating, ‘memory pictures’ of the environment, a very novel idea at time. Yet, today we know that scouting bees can accurately communicate the location, distance, as well as quality of a field of flowers to hive mates.

After his retirement from Sumner in 1922 and death in 1923, a nearby school in the same neighborhood was named in his honor. The Charles Henry Turner Open Air School for Crippled Children was founded in 1925. Later the school was renamed Turner Middle School. Today he is also honored by the international members of the Animal Behavior Society. He is recognized as not only a pioneering professional in the field but a role model. The society’s undergraduate diversity program is named in his honor.

List of links with more information about Dr. Turner and his legacy.
Planet Science Out There – Black History, Charles Henry Turner
Dr. Turners Doctoral Dissertation (I think about all of the responsibilities he handled while he completed his doctoral studies – a full-time job, a family AND he was dealing with racial disparities.  It really puts my complaints of ‘distractions in perspective, plus how easy is it for today’s scholar? We have internet!)
A Brief Biography of Charles Henry Turner
Chronology of Charles Henry Turner
Biography of Charles Turner
Bug Watching With Charles Henry Turner (Naturalist’s Apprentice Biographies) A book by Michael Elsohn Ross

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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