February is Black History Month. Historically, culturally, and institutionally, the contributions to the scientific world from scientists of color have been marginalized. Their stories are often missing in the narrative of history. To observe Black History Month and to promote scientists of color, we are highlighting Black scientists who contributed to our collective understanding of nature around the world and in our backyards. Today, we’re taking a closer look at Dr. Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923).
Born in Cincinnati two years after the Civil War, Charles Henry Turner was an innovative researcher, accomplished scientist, tireless educator, and an early leader in the civil rights movement. His research in insect navigation, sight, and behavior led to numerous publications. He proposed that bees could perceive color and patterns and devised experiments to test insect color recognition. He pioneered studies demonstrating that insects can learn and incorporated some of his processes into his approach to teaching. His work is remarkable in many ways, especially when considering at the time of some of these findings he worked without formal laboratory resources and equipment, without access to research libraries, had no assistance from undergraduate or graduate students, and no university appointment. A proponent of education as a means to ending racism, his influential work was recognized internationally by leaders of animal behavioral studies and by leaders of the civil rights movement.
Turner became the first Black American to earn a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1891 and in 1907 earned a Doctorate in Zoology. Dr. Turner was the third African American person to receive a PhD from the University of Chicago. Teaching all throughout his academic career, in high school classrooms and lecture halls, Dr. Turner was confronted with institutional racism when it came to pay, positions, and access to resources. He is remembered for his groundbreaking work in entomology and animal behavior and devoting his career to the education of others.
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Additional Resources & Sources
Charles Henry Turner. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Henry-Turner
Profile of Charles Henry Turner. University of Cincinnati. https://www.artsci.uc.edu/news/profile-Turner-bhm.html
Black Lives Matter: Revisiting Charles Henry Turner’s experiments on honey bee color vision. Current Biology, vol 30, is 20, 19 Oct 2020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982220312653
Charles Henry Turner, Animal Behavior Scientist. Scientific American. Feb 13, 2012. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/urban-scientist/charles-henry-turner-animal-behavior-scientist/
Charles Henry Turner – A Brief Biography. https://psychology.okstate.edu/museum/turner/turnerbio.html