Charles Henry Turner: a biography of this famous American zoologist
Charles H. Turner was one of the most relevant figures in zoology and comparative psychology.
Modern zoology could not be understood without the contributions of authors such as Charles Henry Turner. This researcher is one of the main references in the study of animals as we know them today, having specialized in the field of insects.
Through this biography of Charles H. Turner we will be able to make a journey through his life to know how was his formation, which were the most important events that he faced and which were the main contributions that he made in his field of scientific knowledge.
Brief biography of Charles H. Turner
Charles Henry Turner was born in the year 1867 in the city of Cincinnati.Ohio, in the state of Ohio, in the United States. It was only two years after the Civil War had ended, so Turner's childhood took place in a post-war setting. His mother, Addie Campbell, was a nurse, while his father, Thomas Turner, worked in the local church as a custodian.
Charles H. Turner's schooling took place at Woodard High School, also giving the closing speech for his graduating class. From there he continued his education at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in Biology in 1891. His thesis, about the neuroanatomical development of the brain in birds, was so important that he published an article in the journal Scienceone of the most prestigious journals, being the first African-American person to achieve such an honor.
He worked for a while in the laboratory of the same university and then started his doctorate at Denison, but was unable to finish it because the program was cancelled. He then moved to Clark University, already as a professor, to begin his life as a teacher. At this institution he would go on to chair the science department.
During this time, in addition, Charles H. Turner met his first wife, Lillian Porter Turner, who sadly passed away shortly thereafter.who unfortunately died shortly after, in 1895.
After his time at this university, he decided to pursue his career as a teacher in secondary education, moving to Cleveland, Tennessee, where he was chosen to direct the College Hill High School. However, this stage was brief, because soon after he left that job in order to obtain a professorship in Chemistry and Biology at Haines and at the same time continue with the doctorate that he had had to postpone previously.
It was in 1906 when she was able to complete her doctorate, graduating magna cum laude. He was the first African-American person to obtain this degree at the University of Chicago, so his trajectory continued to be that of a pioneer.He was the first African American to obtain this degree at the University of Chicago, so his trajectory continued to be that of a pioneer. Right after that he married his second wife, Lillian Porter Turner.
He then resumed his teaching profession in secondary education at Summer High School, where he continued to work until his retirement in 1922. He was forced to take early retirement due to poor health. Charles H. Turner died in 1923, due to a cardiac pathology. His body rests since then in the cemetery of Lincoln, in the city of Chicago.
Research of Charles H. Turner
Charles H. Turner's career as a researcher was tremendously prolific. He published more than 70 articles, most of them related to invertebrates, his main field of study, as a zoologist.his main field of study as a zoologist. In them he studied the behavior of animals such as spiders, wasps, bees and ants, among others. Three of these articles were published in the journal Science.
Thanks to the studies carried out by Charles H. Turner, today we know interesting data such as that cockroaches learn through a system of trial and error, that insects have the ability to hear and discern between different tones of sound or that bees have the ability to distinguish colors and shapes through their eyes.
What is most commendable is that most of this research by Charles H. Turner was carried out in parallel with his work as a high school teacher.The question is how far this researcher could have gone if he had had more resources and a specific laboratory in which to carry out his experiments with a team in charge, collaborating with him in the studies. The question is how far this researcher could have gone if he had had more resources.
His work was so important that he received recognition from different institutions. Numerous American schools, especially in Missouri, have taken the name of Charles H. Turner as a tribute to the career of this zoologist. Likewise, Clark University, in Atlanta, decided to name one of its buildings Tanner-Turner Hall, in memory of one of the best researchers who walked its halls.
Author Michal B. Ross, for his part, decided to compile the working methods used by Charles H. Turner in a volume adapted to children in which teaches children different ways of observing the behavior of insects, bringing zoology and ethology to the youngest, in an appropriate and understandable language for them.This way, zoology and ethology are brought closer to the youngest, in a language that is appropriate and understandable for them. The book is entitled "Bug Watching with Charles Henry Turner".
The intentionality of animals
One of Charles H. Turner's most notable studies was the one on the behavior of snakes. Not surprisingly, he was one of those who managed to publish through the journal Sciencea sign of the repercussions it would have. Turner explains the specific case of the observation of a snake while trying to hunt a lizard and the type of decisions it adopts in order to achieve its goal.
Through this study, published more than 100 years ago, Turner discovered the intentionality underlying the snake's behavior, for after chasing its prey for a while, without success, it changed its strategy.After chasing its prey for a while, without success, it changed its strategy. In this case, the lizard had taken refuge in a tree, and was waiting for the snake to wait below. However, the snake was determined to climb up another nearby tree to overtake the lizard in height and attack from the rear.
Other examples of animal insight were found, for instance, in studies with cockroachesin which they had to solve a maze test. Charles H. Turner found that the younger cockroaches solved the maze more quickly, but the older ones, although slower, were more accurate in selecting the path along which they should advance.
Likewise, he studied the case of a wasp that carried prey to its shelter and on the way avoided a series of obstacles that got in its way. Turner's explanation for this behavior is that the wasp was deliberately choosing the path that allowed it to avoid all these obstacles. In this way, the researcher was taking an opposite position to that of Thorndike, a contemporary author, whose explanation was that such behavior was due to a process of trial and error..
Charles supported this thesis with other investigations; for example, that of an ant that, being trapped on a surface surrounded by water, decided to use a series of materials within its reach to form a walkway that would allow it to overcome the moat that surrounded it and thus be able to reach dry land. This is a complex problem whose solution requires reasoning that does not explain the idea of trial and error.
The idea of intentionality in animals, which demonstrated an underlying intelligence, was truly a revolutionary idea for the time.. However, his work did not have the repercussion it deserved at the time and it was not until many years later that other authors took up his legacy and continued these lines of research.
Other discoveries on zoology in which Charles Henry Turner was a pioneer were those that had to do with bees and their ability to orient themselves by reference.. This field is usually assigned to Nikolaas Tinbergen in the 1930s, but Turner had already studied the phenomenon almost three decades earlier. In this case, he noticed this type of behavior by observing a bee next to a bottle cap near its comb.
By moving the plug, next to an artificial hole, the bee automatically decided to look for its nest in that new area, so it was making it clear that it was the plug that it was using as a reference element to return home, beyond following a scent trail or other mechanisms.
The list of examples could continue to lengthen, but with those already mentioned we can get an idea of the impressive work of Charles H. Turner and the tremendous legacy he has left to this day in zoology and other scientific disciplines, such as biology, psychology or ethology.
- Dewsbury, D.A., Ludy, T. B., Wertheimer, M. (2014). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology: Volume VI. Psychology Press.
- Galpayage, H.S., Chittka, L. (2020). Charles H. Turner, pioneer in animal cognition. Science.
- Turner, C.H. (1909). The behaviour of a snake. Science.
- Turner, C. H. (1892). A Few Characteristics of the Avian Brain. Science.