The Life and Science of Charles Henry Turner

Portrait of Charles Henry Turner, a distinguished African American scientist, from 1921. He is wearing a formal suit with a tie and pocket square, sporting a mustache, and looking slightly to his left with a serious expression.
Charles Henry Turner, 1921.

Dr. Charles Henry Turner was a passionate zoologist who brought intuition and curiosity for animals to his research. Amongst his many findings, some of the more important breakthroughs were his discoveries that bees have color vision and some concept of time, and insects can hear, learn, and change their behavior given past experiences. Additionally, he studied insect emotions, writing on the topic,

“There is much evidence that the responses of moths to stimuli are expressions of emotion. The fact that an insect does not respond to a sound is no sign that it does not hear it. The response depends upon whether or not the sound has a life significance.”

What made his discoveries even more astounding was that they were made from a simple high school laboratory. Even though Charles had an impressive pedigree of degrees and was brilliant, he couldn’t secure a research position at a university because of his race and wanted to help educate black students. “I feel I am needed here and can do much more for my people,” he would reply when asked about teaching high school.

Charles was born in Cincinnati in 1867 to parents who believed in the importance of education and pushed their son to learn throughout his upbringing. Their motivation came to fruition. He found his purpose and passion in those early years, asking many questions about nature and bugs in particular. One of his teachers said to Charles, “If you want to know all about these things, why don’t you go and find out.” Charles replied, “I will.”

In 1886, Charles graduated as valedictorian of his class. Then, he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He was the first black American to earn a Master’s and one of the first to earn a Ph.D. from the respective universities, and an excellent student in all his studies. Fellow classmates spoke highly of Charles, with one saying “that the consensus of the class would be that Turner was its most able member.”

Unable to secure work at a university upon graduating and too expensive for Tuskegee University, which already employed Dr. George Washington Carver, Charles took a position teaching high school science. He would switch schools but stayed at the high school level for his entire thirty-three-year career, during which he also conducted research, publishing about 70 papers.

In his personal life, Charles raised three children alone for many years after his first wife passed away early in life. He kept the family home full of books, and just as in his work, he instilled a curiosity for nature in his children. His daughter wrote about her father,

“My father to us was just a plain, kind man who instilled in us those qualities that would make for a simple, successful life.

Charles passed away in 1923.


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