Profile of Charles Henry Turner

Influential Educator, Animal Behavior Scientist and UC Alumnus.

Date: 02/05/2018 8:00:00 AM

By: Stuart Lindle
Contact: Julie Campbell-Holmes
Phone: (513) 509-1114

Photograph of Charles Turner

Charles Henry Turner

CINCINNATI, Oh. — Charles Henry Turner’s advancements in the field of zoology shaped the way we understand the natural world. He did this much of this work, not from a professional laboratory or a college campus, but from Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught science until his retirement at age 55.

Born in Cincinnati two years after the Civil War ended, Turner was encouraged from a young age to prioritize learning and education. His father worked as a custodian, and his mother was a nurse. After graduating from Gaines High School in 1886 as class valedictorian, Turner went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Cincinnati—the first graduate degree awarded by UC to an African American.

During his time at UC, Turner also taught at local schools and did an assistantship with his high school alma mater.

He graduated from the University of Chicago with Ph. D. in zoology in 1907, becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at the university. Turner was turned down for a teaching position by the University of Chicago, and spent the following years moving from high school to high school working low-paying teaching jobs. He would eventually settle in St. Louis, Missouri.

Title and opening of a 1914 article by Charles Henry Turner in The Biological Bulletin.

Title and opening of a 1914 article by Charles Henry Turner in The Biological Bulletin.

Over his 33-year career, including time spent teaching at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Turner published more than 70 research papers. Arguably, his most influential discovery was that insects can hear and alter behavior based on their previous experience. More generally, he showed the world that insects were capable of learning and recognizing patterns.

He did much of this work without the help of a formal laboratory facility or the support of a university, and while balancing family and a full-time job.

In addition to his many contributions to science, Turner was an academic activist for civil rights. He argued that education was key to ending racism. He chose to work at predominantly black colleges and schools, even if that meant lower pay and fewer resources.

Turner’s legacy lives on his scientific achievements, and in his service to education. After his death in 1923 the first school for African American disabled children, the Charles Henry Turner Open Air School for Crippled Children, was founded in St. Louis. It was later renamed the Turner Middle School. In 1962, Clark College in Atlanta, where he taught from 1893 to 1905, named Turner-Tanner Hall in his honor.