Dr. Charles Henry Turner: An Amazing Scientist

This week we are featuring Dr. Charles Henry Turner. Before I begin my article on him, I have a personal note that I’d like to share. As Nancy stated in her blog post on Dr. Margaret S. Collins, I would like to reiterate that entomology is for everyone. Science is meant to help us increase our understanding of the world around us. Although science is meant to be free of biases, it does exist within a social construct; therefore, we should acknowledge its shortcomings. On June 1st the Entomological Society of America (ESA) posted the article Why Black Lives Matter to Entomology, addressing the fact that people of color do not often choose careers in the life sciences4 and that black entomologists make up 2.7% of ESA membership3,5. It is very sobering to see these statistics, but it is necessary to be aware of the discrepancies in order to initiate real change. Nancy, Joe, and I were extremely saddened by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. These events displayed the extreme injustices and inequalities that people of color face. 

Dr. Charles Henry Turner (1867 – 1923) was the third African American to be awarded a PhD from the University of Chicago, Illinois2. His PhD was in Zoology, however he also identified as a psychologist, entomologist, and chemist2. He published ~71 articles – four of which were concerned with civil rights2. Turner was very much aware of prejudice and reflected on issues of race relations. In St. Louis, Missouri he had a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement2. Despite his qualifications, he couldn’t find an academic position (which is pretty surprising because of his publication record). He ended up teaching in African American high schools whilst still performing scientific experiments2. It is absolutely amazing that he continued the level of research without a proper laboratory. During his time teaching and performing research he came up with many methods integral for the progression of insect behavior. 

Dr. Charles Henry Turner. Unknown photographer. 

Dr. Turner made many contributions to the study of insect behavior. For example, his insect behavior experiments were the first to show evidence that insects can hear and distinguish airborne sounds2. He also researched many aspects of ant behavior. For example, he discovered that foraging ants make exploratory circling movement when they return to the colony1 and he also described mound building behavior in ants6. His expertise wasn’t limited to insects. He was the first African American to publish in Science1 – where he described characteristics of avian brains8Science is a very prestigious journal – only the best research is selected. 

Thankfully, many authors, scientists, and others have shared Dr. Turner’s story and works. Unfortunately, many other people of color and their contributions to science are lost to history. Science is not a field that should alienate people, but one that should welcome anyone that wishes to pursue a career in it. It is my hope that we can learn not only from the research of this great man, but from his efforts in Civil Rights. Education, entomology, and science are for all. 

1. Abramson, C. I. (2017). Charles Henry Turner remembered. Nature542(7639), 31-31.

2. Abramson, C. I. (2009). A study in inspiration: Charles Henry Turner (1867–1923) and the investigation of insect behavior. Annual review of entomology54, 343-359.

3. Entomological Society of America. 2019 membership data.

4. Riddick, E.W., M. Samuel-Foo, W.W. Bryan, and A.M. Simmons, (eds). 2015. Memoirs of Black Entomologists: Reflections on Childhood, University, and Career Experiences. Entomological Society of America, Annapolis, MD.

5. Rominiecki, J. (2020) “Why Black Lives Matter to Entomology.” | Entomological Society of America, www.entsoc.org/why-black-lives-matter-entomology.

6. Spangenburg, R., Moser, D., & Long, D. (2014). African Americans in science, math, and invention. Infobase Publishing.

7. Turner, C. H. (1907). The homing of ants: an experimental study of ant behavior. University of Chicago..

8. Turner, C. H. (1892). A few characteristics of the avian brain. Science, (466), 16-17.

Chicago         

9. Turner CH, Schwarz E. 1914. Auditory powers of the Catocala moths: an experimental field study. Biol.

Bull. 27:275–93

About JoanieTheEntomologist

PhD candidate in entomology.
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