Honoring Charles Henry Turner this Black History Month

Charles Henry Turner. Credit: University of Cincinnati

I once heard a Black activist whom I admire here in Bellingham, Washington admonish a largely White audience at a Black History Month event to remember that the history of Black people is part of our history, too. I took his words to mean that the world all of us inhabit today has been shaped in profound ways by countless Black leaders, innovators, and thinkers, many of whom are never given the credit they deserve in mainstream history books. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have all benefited from Black courage, Black creativity, and Black resiliency. With this in mind, and in honor of this year’s Black History Month, I offer some reflections on how one Black thought leader played a role shaping my own love for the natural world.

I was introduced to the legacy of Charles Henry Turner by a children’s book biography about the zoologist and naturalist. I must have been about ten or eleven at the time. I already had a deep-seated interest in the natural world–especially for all things creepy and crawly, for creatures with scales, antennae, or compound eyes. I was therefore naturally captivated by Turner’s life work, which was to shed light on the complexity of life among insects and other invertebrates.

According the University of Cincinnati, where Turner was the first Black student to earn a master’s degree, he was born just a couple of years after the end of the U.S. Civil War. He grew up in Cincinnati, and it’s fascinating to consider how his own intense interest in animal life began. This was during the heyday of the “nature study” movement, a forerunner to today’s field of environmental education, when it was widely assumed that learning about the plants and animals of one’s local area should be an important part of any child’s education. Turner’s parents were a custodian and a nurse, and Black working-class families like his wouldn’t have access to the same learning resources as children from more privileged backgrounds. Still, it’s intriguing to imagine the young Turner exploring southern Ohio’s fields and woods with the encouragement of teachers. We do know his parents believed deeply in the importance of education and encouraged Turner to continue his after high school. He took their advice, and focused his studies on animals.

After finishing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at University Cincinnati, Turner went on to pursue a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Chicago. He was the first Black doctoral student to receive a degree from that school, in 1907. By that time he had amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, which included authoring over 20 scientific papers. However, he was unable to secure a faculty position at a university, presumably because of racist discrimination that would have prevented even such a well-qualified Black candidate as he was from being offered a teaching a job. Turner finally became a science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, where he would raise a family and forge a career as a scientist whose experiments transformed how we view insects.

Turner lived at a time of deeply ambivalent attitudes toward the natural world. The popular nature study movement tended to romanticize nature and often viewed animal life through a highly anthropomorphic lens. On the other hand, the scientific establishment still regarded animals as basically nothing more than advanced machines. Even creatures as close to humankind as monkeys and apes were assumed by scientists to have little capacity for thought, awareness, or emotions. The idea that mere insects might be anything more than miniature automatons would have shocked many researchers–yet, Turner’s studies demonstrated that these tiny creatures interact with each other and their environment in sophisticated ways.

Much of the brilliance in Turner’s approach stemmed from the fact that he took a middle ground to prevailing attitudes about animals. His studies of insect life were scientifically rigorous, avoiding the romanticism with which the nature movement often got carried away. Yet, he also refused to let his ideas about non-human life forms be constrained by the mechanistic worldview then held by much of Western science. He placed insects in home-made miniature mazes to show that they learn and respond to changes in their environment in ways that can only be described as intelligent. At a time when insects were widely assumed to have only the most primitive of senses, he demonstrated that moths hear and honey bees see color. In short, Turner was a true intellectual pioneer, proving that the world of insects and other invertebrates is vastly more complex than most scientists had previously imagined.

As a child I was enthralled by descriptions of Turner’s experiments, which were brilliant in their design but simple enough for anyone to understand. I began designing my own construction paper mazes to test the learning abilities of beetles and caterpillars. My adolescent experiments lacked proper scientific rigor, of course, but they allowed me to share in the sense of discovery all naturalists experience when uncovering secrets of the natural world. It was also around this time that I developed what would become a lifelong fascination with insect behavior. I began to see grasshoppers, weevils, and wasps as creatures whose lives are just as interesting as those of lions or elephants.

Looking back, I can say Charles Henry Turner was one of a handful of naturalists whose work played a pivotal role shaping my own love of and appreciation for the natural world. In fact, at one point I thought I would follow in his footsteps by becoming a professional entomologist. While I did not end up taking that path, my affinity for insects helped inspire me to become an environmental activist and educator. Yet, I was lucky to have even heard of Turner as a child.

Despite his monumental contributions to science, Turner’s work has been widely overlooked for more than a century. His studies on honey bees helped lay the foundation for the work of other scientists like the Austrian Karl von Frisch, who in 1973 received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to our understanding of insect and other animal behavior. Some techniques von Frisch used, like training bees to recognize targets of different colors, appear to have been developed first by Turner. Yet, while the Nobel laureate was readily inducted into the hall of scientific fame, Turner has largely been forgotten. It is time to resurrect his legacy and give him the credit he deserves.

Turner himself was not one to sit passively by when confronted by the forces of oppression. The scientist was also a leader of the civil rights movement in St. Louis who saw equitable access to education as a tool for combatting racism. Even as he transformed our understanding of other species, he was fighting for a more just future for humanity. He knew the effects of racism from firsthand experience, and he wasn’t afraid to speak out.

Charles Henry Turner was a key figure in early twentieth-century zoology, whose experiments transformed the views of other scientists. Despite never being offered a faculty position at a university, he affected the trajectory of biology and helped shape the world we live in today–whether we realize it or not–all while fighting structural racism at every turn. This Black History Month, let us take a minute to honor the inspiring lifework of this extraordinary naturalist.


Sources/further reading: See these resources from the Univeristy of Cincinnati, Oklahoma State University, and WWF for more on Turner’s life and legacy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s