Charles Henry Turner: biography of this famous American zoologist

Modern zoology could not be understood without the contribution 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 it biography of Charles H. Turner we will be able to take a tour of his life to find out what his training was like, what were the most important events he faced and what were the main contributions he made in his field of scientific knowledge.

    Brief biography of Charles H. Turner

    Charles Henry Turner was born in 1867 in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, United States. It had only been two years since the Civil War ended, so Turner’s childhood was set in a post-war scenario. Her mother, Addie Campbell, was a nurse, while her father, Thomas Turner, worked at the local church as a caretaker.

    Charles H. Turner’s education took place at Woodard High School, and he also gave his class’s closing speech. From there he continued his training at the University of Cincinnati, obtaining a degree in biology in 1891. His thesis, on the neuroanatomical development of the brain in birds, was so important that it was worth publishing an article in the journal Science., One of the most prestigious, being the first African-American person to obtain such an honor.

    He worked for a time in the lab at the same university, then started his doctorate at Denison, but was unable to complete it because the program had been canceled. He then moved to Clark University, already as a professor, to begin his life as a lecturer. In this institution, he would continue to head the science department.

    Meanwhile, moreover, Charles H. Turner he met what would become his first wife, Lillian Porter Turner, Who unfortunately died soon after, in 1895.

    After graduating from college, he decided to pursue a career as a high school teacher and moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, where he was elected to lead College Hill High School. However, this step was short-lived, as he soon left this post to be able to obtain a chair of chemistry and biology at Haines and at the same time pursue the doctorate which he had had to postpone previously.

    It was in 1906 that he succeeded in completing his doctorate, with a magna cum laude qualification. He was the first African American to graduate from the University of Chicago.So his career continued to be that of a pioneer. Right after marrying his second wife, Lillian Porter Turner.

    He then resumed his teaching profession in secondary education, working at the summer high school, where he continued to work until his retirement in 1922. He was forced to retire prematurely due to his health. precarious. Charles H. Turner died in 1923 from heart disease. His body has since been buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Chicago.

    Research of Charles H. Turner

    Charles H. Turner’s research career has been extremely prolific. He went on to publish more than 70 papers, most of them related to invertebrates, 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 of Charles H. Turner, it is now known 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.

    The most deserving thing is that much of this research by Charles H. Turner was conducted in parallel with his work as a high school teacher., Without having therefore allocated resources for this nor a specific laboratory in which to be able to carry out his experiments with a work team in charge, collaborating with him in the studies. The question to ask is to know how far this researcher could have gone if he had had more resources.

    His work was so important that he received recognition from various institutions. Many American schools, notably in Missouri, took the name of Charles H. Turner in homage to the career of this zoologist. Likewise, Clark University in Atlanta has decided to name one of its buildings Tanner-Turner Hall, in memory of one of the best scholars to walk its halls.

    Author Michal B. Ross, for his part, decided to bring together the working methods used by Charles H. Turner in a volume suitable for children in which the little ones learn different ways of observing the behavior of insects, Thus approaching zoology and ethology to the youngest, in an appropriate and understandable language for them. The book is called “Bug Watching with Charles Henry Turner”.

      The intentionality of animals

      One of Charles H. Turner’s most notable studies was that of the behavior of snakes. It is not in vain that he was one of those who managed to publish through the journal Science, a sample of the impact that this would have. Turner explains the specific case of sighting a snake as he tries to hunt a lizard and the kinds of decisions he makes to achieve his goal.

      Thanks to this study, published over 100 years ago, Turner discovered the intentionality underlying the snake’s behavior, Because after having hunted for some time his prey, without success, he changed his strategy. In this case, the lizard had taken refuge in a tree and had waited for the snake to wait below. However, the snake took the determination to climb another nearby tree to surpass the lizard in height and attack from behind.

      Other examples of animal insight have been found for example in studies with beetles, In which they had to solve a maze test. Charles H. Turner noticed that the younger cockroaches solved the maze faster, but the larger ones, although slower, were more precise in choosing which path to take.

      He also studied the case of a wasp that carried prey to its shelter and avoided a series of obstacles that stood in its way. The explanation Turner found for this behavior is that the wasp was deliberately choosing the path that allowed it to avoid all of these obstacles. In this way, the researcher took a position opposite to that of Thorndike, a contemporary author, the explanation is that this behavior was due to a process of trial and error.

      Charles supported this thesis with other research; for example, that of an ant which, being trapped in a surface surrounded by water, decided to use a series of materials at its disposal to form a footbridge that would allow it to overlap the pit that surrounded it and so to after. to reach the mainland. 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 impact it deserved at the time and it took many years for other authors to pick up on his legacy and continue this research.

      Other discoveries in zoology that Charles Henry Turner pioneered were those concerning bees and their ability to orient themselves through references. This domain is generally attributed 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 when he observed a bee next to a bottle cap, near its honeycomb.

      When moving the cap, next to an artificial hole, the bee decided to automatically search for its nest in this new area, so it was indicating clearly the cork was the item he was using as a reference to get home, beyond chasing a trail of scent or other mechanisms.

      The list of examples could go on and on, but with the above we can get a sense of the impressive work of Charles H. Turner and the great legacy he has left to date in zoology and in other scientific disciplines., Such as biology, psychology or ethology.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Dewsbury, DA, Ludy, TB, Wertheimer, M. (2014). Portraits of pioneers of psychology: volume VI. Psychology Press.
      • Galpayage, HS, Chittka, L. (2020). Charles H. Turner, pioneer of animal cognition. Science.
      • Turner, CH (1909). The behavior of a snake. Science.
      • Turner, CH (1892). Few features of the avian brain. Science.

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