Charles Henry Turner, Pioneer Animal Behaviorist

First to Demonstrate Color Vision in Honey Bees

Charles Henry Turner
Charles Henry Turner, Zoologist and Animal Behaviorist.

 Encyclopædia Britannica/Public Domain

Zoologist and educator Charles Henry Turner (February 3, 1867—February 14, 1923) is known for his work with insects and numerous animal behavioral experiments. Turner was the first to demonstrate that insects can hear and learn. He was also the first to demonstrate that honey bees have color vision and distinguish patterns.

Fast Facts: Charles Henry Turner

  • Born: February 3, 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Died: February 14, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Parents: Thomas and Addie Campbell Turner
  • Spouses: Leontine Troy (m. 1887-1895) and Lillian Porter (m. 1907-1923)
  • Children: Henry Owen, Darwin Romanes, and Louisa Mae (with Troy)
  • Education: Turner was the first African American to receive a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati (M.S. in biology), and to earn a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago
  • Published Works: The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior (1907), Experiments on Color Vision of the Honey Bee (1910)
  • Key Accomplishments: First to discover that bees see in color and recognize patterns.

Early Years

Charles Henry Turner was born in 1867 to Thomas Turner and Addie Campbell Turner in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father worked as a custodian in a church and his mother was a nurse. The couple were avid readers, who owned hundreds of books and encouraged their son to learn and discover more about the world around him. As a young boy, Turner was fascinated by insects and was curious about their behaviors. After graduating as class valedictorian from Gaines High School, he enrolled in the University of Cincinnati in 1886.

Turner married Leontine Troy in 1887. The couple had three children during the marriage: Henry, Darwin, and Louisa Mae. While at the University of Cincinnati, Turner majored in biology and went on to earn his B.S. (1891) and M.S. (1892) degrees. In doing so, he became the first African American to earn a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati.

Career and Accomplishments

An educator at heart, Turner gained employment at several schools and an assistantship at the University of Cincinnati. His ultimate desire was to head an African American institution of higher learning. After reportedly contacting Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute about potential teaching opportunities, Turner landed a position as a professor at Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. He also served as chair of the Department of Science and Agriculture at the college from 1893 to 1905. During his time in Atlanta, his wife, Leontine, passed away (1895).

Turner continued to pursue education and earned a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1907. He became the university's first African American recipient of such an advanced degree. That same year, he married Lillian Porter and taught biology and chemistry at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Atlanta. The couple later moved to St. Louis, Missouri, after Turner acquired a position at Sumner High School, where he continued to teach African American students from 1908 to 1922.

Groundbreaking Research

Charles Henry Turner is most noted for his groundbreaking research in animal behavior. He is reported to have published more than 70 papers in scientific journals, including the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, American Naturalist, Journal of Animal Behaviour, and Science. Despite his impressive degrees and numerous published works, he was denied employment at major universities. 

Turner's research focused on the behaviors of various animals, including birds, ants, cockroaches, honeybees, wasps, and moths. One of his most notable research discoveries focused on the navigation of ants and was the subject of his doctoral dissertation, entitled The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior, published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. Turner designed controlled experiments and mazes for testing the navigational abilities of ants. His experiments demonstrated that ants find their way by learning about their environment. He also identified a specific type of behavior in some ant species that later became known as "Turner's circling," as was referred to by French scientist Victor Cornetz. This circling behavior was observed when the ants returned to their nest.

His later experiments with honey bees contributed to the better understanding of invertebrate animal behavior. These studies established that bees see in color and recognize patterns. His two papers on these studies, Experiments on Color Vision of the Honey Bee and Experiments on Pattern-Vision of the Honey Bee, appeared in Biological Bulletin in 1910 and 1911 respectively. Unfortunately, Turner's contributions to the study of honey bee behavior were not cited by his contemporaries, such as Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch, who published works concerning honey bee communication several years later. Turner conducted many other experiments and published papers that elucidated insect phenomenon such as hearing in moths, insects that play dead, and learning in cockroaches. Additionally, he published studies on bird and crustacean brain anatomy and is credited with discovering a new species of invertebrate. 

Death and Legacy

Throughout his life, Charles Henry Turner was an advocate for civil rights and argued that racism could be conquered through education. He published papers on the subject in 1897 and 1902. Turner retired from Summer High School in 1922 due to failing health. He moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he lived with his son Darwin until his death on February 14, 1923.

Charles Henry Turner made lasting contributions to the fields of zoology and animal behavior. His experimental designs, observational methods, and investigations of vertebrate and invertebrate learning elucidated new ways of studying animal life.

Sources

  • Abramson, Charles I. "Charles Henry Turner: Contributions of a Forgotten African-American to Honey Bee Research." Charles Henry Turner, Oklahoma State University, psychology.okstate.edu/museum/turner/turnerbio.html.
  • DNLee. "Charles Henry Turner, Animal Behavior Scientist." Scientific American Blog Network, 13 Feb. 2012, blogs.scientificamerican.com/urban-scientist/charles-henry-turner-animal-behavior-scientist/. 
  • Turner, C. H. "The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior." Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, vol. 17, no. 5, 1907, pp. 367–434., doi:10.1002/cne.920170502. 
  • "Turner, Charles Henry." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Encyclopedia.com, www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/turner-charles-henry. 
  • Vincze, Judit. "Turner, Charles H. (1867–1923)" JRank Articles, encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/4485/Turner-Charles-H-1867-1923.html.