Charles Henry Tuner: Entomologist

In Discovery Park’s newly established permanent exhibit, “AgriCulture: Innovating for our Survival, over 10,000 complex, creative and intelligent beings reside in a wooden and glass chamber in the building’s northeast corner. There are eight living species of honeybee in this chamber, and each of them are brilliant, efficient and incredibly structured in their behavior and interactions.

However, this was not always believed to be the case.

For millennia, naturalists assumed that insects were essentially mindless – incapable of complex thought, learning, recognizing patterns or even seeing color. For this reason, little was done to develop the honey industry in the way of altering a colony’s behavior to increase production.

This changed around 1910 with the release of a number of scientific publications by St. Louis-based scientist Charles Henry Turner.

Turner was born in Cincinnati in 1867, graduated valedictorian from Gainesville High School and earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s of science in biology from the University of Cincinnati. Despite his innate brilliance, experience and education, Turner faced an obstacle in his search for employment that, in the late 19th century, seemed impossible to overcome – his race. Turner went on to become to the first African American person to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1907, but upon seeking employment at an esteemed university, still faced racism and dismissal of his accomplishments. Turner became a high school science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis in 1908 and remained there until his retirement in 1922.

Nevertheless, over the course of 30 years, he published over 70 scientific papers, many of which pertained to the behavior of insects. Turner’s work essentially formed the foundation for entomologists for the coming century. Turner was likely the first black entomologist to be published in the United States, as well as the first black scientist published in the journal Science.

Turner is perhaps most well-known for his work with honeybees, detailing in a 1910 paper how bees in his independent study had reacted to various colored disks, showing complex thought processes and color vision.

As we celebrate Black History Month at Discovery Park, we are making people aware of the contributions of black scientists, engineers, artists, and other great minds who have shaped the disciplines represented in each of our museum and heritage park’s galleries.