Remembering Dr. Charles Henry Turner

Charles Henry Turner

Charles Turner was one of the most important names in science. He was able to show people for the first time that honeybees have color vision, a very important discovery. The scientist should also be remembered as being one of the first African American to receive a university degree, at a time when African Americans were discriminated in the American society. Charles Henry Turner lived between 1867 and 1923 and left behind a very important legacy.

Early Years

Charles Turner was born on February 3, 1867, in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. His father worked as a custodian and his mother was a nurse, which can explain Turner’s love and fascination towards the science of biology. Historians agree that both parents encouraged young Charles to read everything he could get his hands on. His scientific career can be explain by the extended support and motivation he received from his parents.

Charles Turner graduated as the best in his class from Gaines High School. His education continued at the University of Cincinnati, where he studied biology until 1891. Like most students, he continued his studies with a Master degree, also in biology. After graduation from university, Turner struggled to find work as a university teacher, but with no success. This can be explained by the fact that he was an African American in a period in which racial hate existed and racial conflicts were very common.

Charles Turner was a teacher at Clark College (now known as Clark Atlanta University from 1893 to 1905. His choice can be explained by the fact that Clark College was an institution attended mostly by African Americans.

Rise to Prominence

Charles Turner achieved fame and nationwide recognition for the first time when he earned a doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1907. From 1908, Turner accepted the job as science teacher at the Summer High School in St. Louis, Missouri. Most historians agree that Turner deserved a better job, but it was probably a personal decision to settle for this one. He obviously wanted more time to follow his biggest passion – studying insects.

Charles Turner based his research on careful observations during experiments. He constructed amazing mazes to test the ability of insects to see. Color was a very important tool for Tuner’s research and he wanted to know if the insects are able to see the world the same way we humans can. The results of his work are now included in the books that teach us about the animal kingdom. Our understanding would be limited without the hard work of Charles Turner.

Charles Turner proved for the very first time that honeybees can see color and that they use it to navigate and avoid obstacles. The scientist also proved that insects have the ability to hear sounds of different intensity. To add to that, he proved than not only humans learn from the mistakes they make. Cockroaches have the same ability, which allowed them to survive for so long.

Scientists were convinced at the time Turner began his work that only humans are able to recognize geometrical shapes and specific arrangements of those shapes (called patterns). The American zoologist focused his research on honeybees and came up with the correct theory that the insects use pattern recognition when they feed or travel.

The discoveries made by the American scientist were unique for their time. Animals (including insects) were considered inferior to humans at all chapters, and it was risky to try to prove otherwise. Charles Turner proved that some insects have memory, although one that lasts a couple of days only. Insects can also use their experience to modify their behavior. It is correct to say that insects are smart in their own unique way. Next time you will see an insect, remember that the little fellow is also aware of the things around it. Insects try their best to get through life as successfully as we humans do.

Charles Turner spent a lot of time in his own laboratory, trying to come up with new experiments to prove his theories. However, he never neglected the biggest laboratory available free – nature. Hours of careful observations allowed Charles Turner to imagine the right theories and to come up with the ways to prove them. His amazing results required a lot of patience and determination. The natural environment needs to be observed for a long time in order to reveal its secrets.

You might have heard that dogs can be trained to do something based on a reward. It is called instinct and it creates a relation between two actions that are otherwise unrelated. Pavlov was a Russian scientist who managed to train dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, by giving them the promise of food. Charles Turner did the same thing, but with smaller creatures. Insects have the same intelligence when it comes to learning an instinct.

Lasting Legacy

Although Charles Turner was aware of the importance of his discoveries, he kept his enthusiasm low. We can assume that he knew there is much more to discover and learn about the natural world. He also knew how easy you could make mistakes and consider something true. Experiments often provide false data, which leads to wrong conclusion. Turner was one of the first scientists to admit the limitations of the methods used. The zoologist was a modest person in the good sense of the word. He never praised fame and being correct was for him more important than being famous.

Almost a century ago, researching a particular topic was not as easy as it is today. Turner did not have the Internet and some books were indeed very hard to find. Laboratories needed for experiments were closing their doors when an African American was coming to ask permission. It was very hard for Turner, but he did a good job. A lesson to learn, that if you really want to do something, you leave behind all difficulties. The zoologist can teach us that there is a solution for every problem and that it does not matter how the world looks at you.

It might be hard for you to remember all the information about Charles Turner. However, it helps to keep in mind some practical information you might use as a source of fun. The next time you will see ants returning to their nest, pay attention to what they do before arriving there to deliver the supplies they gathered. Chances are you will see the ants walking in a circle, around the nest. This is called “Turner circling” in the honor of the scientist. It was not Charles Turner who decided it is a good idea to name the phenomenon this way. The idea belonged to a French naturalist who wanted to pay homage to Charles’s immense contribution to studying the life of ants.

The city where Charles Turner spent his years as a teacher honors his legacy by naming several schools after him. This is a good example of the fact that a good scientist can also be a great teacher, introducing young minds to the wonders of science and the natural world.

The legacy left behind by Turner is certainly astonishing, judging by the unfavorable premises he started on. In a career stretching for more than 30 years, Turner published over 70 papers. Again, it is useful to remember that all of this was done in a time when papers where written by hand. Pages were re-written numerous times. Weeks if not months were needed for universities to review your paper and send back a response. Being a scientist before the digital era of widespread information and personal computers certainly was difficult. We also have scientist today that deserve our attention and respect. However, it is always useful to look at the past and discover how hard it was back then.

A lot of later research on insect’s behavior is based on the work of Charles Turner. We can call him a pioneer because he dared to research a topic that was probably ridiculed at that time. He was also an African American scientist, which made it even harder to have his voice heard.

  • Ralphl

    An excellent insight into a good man until this point entirely unknown to me.

  • Eric Jackson

     Doing a report on him.

  • Very Informative article.  This is the first time I hear of Dr. Turner.
    Thanks.

    Pete