Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923)

Charles Henry Turner was the first African American psychologist and the first African American comparative behavior psychologist.  Turner was born on February 3rd 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Turner was raised by his mother, Addie Campbell, a practical nurse and his father, Thomas Turner, a church custodian.  His father had a great love for books, and owned an extensive library where Turner became fascinated with reading about the habits and behavior of insects.

Charles Turner attended Woodward High School in Cincinnati where he was the valedictorian of his class.  He then went on to earn his B.S at the University of Cincinnati in 1891.  The following year he earned his Masters degree in Biology at the same University.  After earning his first two degrees Turner married and fathered three children.  With a young family to support, Turner did not finish his doctorate degree in zoology at the University of Chicago, Illinois until 1907.  Although offered a position to work as a professor at the University of Chicago, Turner, who wanted to help young African Americans, took a position as a high school teacher in St. Louis, Missouri.

Turner’s research influenced contemporary ideas about entomology.  The scientist was able to prove that insects can distinguish different pitches and that cockroaches can learn by trial and error.  The term “Turner’s circling” was named after him when he discovered that ants find their way back to their nest in a circular pattern.  Although Turner’s research centered on insects, he left behind a book of poetry and a partly finished book of nature stories for children.

Charles Turner died of cardiac disease in Chicago on February 14th 1923 at the age of 55.  Two years after his death, a school for disabled African American children opened in his name in St. Louis, Missouri.


Charles I. Abramson, Latasha D. Jackson, and Camille L. Fuller, Selected Papers and Biography of Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) Pioneer of Comparative Animal Behavior Studies (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd. 2003); Michael Brodie, Created Equal: The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators  (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993)