In 1892, Turner became the first African American to receive a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati.
In 1907, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
Despite his doctorate, Turner chose to teach at high schools. Most sources attribute this career move to a desire to devote more time to the observation of insects, but 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.
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. 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 color.
Besides his scientific work, Turner was active in the struggle to obtain social and educational services for African Americans in St. Louis, Missouri. After his death, a school for disabled African American children was named in his honor.
He died on February 15, 1923 from acute myocarditis in Chicago. His place of interment is Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.
Black History...Charles Henry Turner (1867 - 1923)
Charles Henry Turner was an African American scientist who dedicated his life to entomology, the branch of zoology concerned with insects.Charles Henry Turner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, America, on February 3rd 1867. His parents had been slaves but were freed at the end of the American Civil War.
Charles’ father was a caretaker and his mother was a nurse and didn’t have much money to spare. So Charles kept himself amused with what he could find around him. He was fascinated with nature, especially insects and he would often just sit and watch how bees or ants for example, behaved.
Charles attended an elementary school for black children and such was his thirst for knowledge that he was forever asking questions.
One day an irritated teacher told him:
..."If you want to know all those things, why don't you go and find out for yourself?"...
And so began Charles’ studies into insects and animal behaviour that would last for the rest of his life.
After attending high school, Charles was accepted into a college but left to marry a woman called Leontine Troy. Later in 1889, he returned to college. He was the only black man in the college and Leontine was the only black woman in the college. After a lot of study, Charles first received his B.S. and later, his M.S. from the University of Cincinnati, before going on to receive a Ph.D in zoology from the University of Chicago. This was an astonishing achievement for an African American of that time, simply because they were not given the same opportunities as white people were.
After teaching at university level for a while, Charles faced a tough decision. He just didn’t know what to do with his life. Way back in high school, Charles had promised himself that if he ever got as far as he had, he would teach young, black students and help them achieve as much as him. So he spent his entire career teaching at Sumner High School, a school for black children in St Louis, Missouri.
Charles’ biology classes were extremely exciting because he took his pupils on trips so they could see insects in nature and he carried out his many exciting experiments with insects in front of them. He also taught his pupils to observe, record and draw everything they saw. So they did, just like he did.
He liked teaching in high school because it allowed him to devote more time to observing and investigating insects. Charles had very little money and no expensive equipment or a laboratory to conduct his experiments in, but he did have a passion to learn and a love of science. So he used what little money he had to buy his own scientific materials and books for research.
He asked many questions about insects and set out to find the answers. Questions like:
...Can moths hear? How do wasps hunt? Do cockroaches learn from experience or is their behaviour totally instinctual? How do ants find the way home to their colony? Do bees recognize the colours of flowers?...
Through his experiments, Charles became the first researcher to prove that insects can hear. He even proved that insects could distinguish between different pitches. He also found that cockroaches learn by trial and error. He built a maze to test this and put the cockroaches inside. When a pathway led to a dead end, the cockroaches remembered this and did not take that path again.
Charles published forty-nine papers on invertebrates during his career. In his papers he revealed that bees can distinguish colour patterns and that they remember the geography of the land to find their way home. He studied ants and found that light rays were a bigger factor than anyone had before thought, in helping ants find their way home. Charles also observed a phenomenon called ‘Turner’s Circling’, whereby ants move in circles towards their ground nest. He also made major discoveries about the behaviour of moths, wasps and found that spiders are a lot cleverer than was thought.
As well as his love of entomology, Charles fought to give homeless and other black people better lives, right up to his death on May 25th 1923. Charles’ research has had a lasting impact and he is still recognised as one of the leading authorities on insect learning and behaviour nearly eighty years after his death. His work lives on and his dedication to his studies when all was against him makes him remembered as one of the world’s most outstanding scientists.
His Daughter said of her famous father:
..."My father , to us, was just a plain, kind man who instilled in us those qualities that would make for the simple, successful life..."