January 9, 2024 | Jerry Bergman

A Black PhD Who Suffered Scientific Racism by Evolutionists

Charles Henry Turner, PhD:
Another case of racial discrimination
and intolerance in academia

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

One of the best examples that illustrates racism not only in American society, but also in science, was the case of Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923). After graduating as valedictorian from Woodard High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, he earned a B.S. degree in Biology, then a Master’s degree, both from the University of Cincinnati.[1] He was then the first African-American to be granted a Ph.D. from the elite University of Chicago.[2] His 1907 PhD, on the homing of ants, is still in print.[3]

After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Turner was unable to obtain an academic appointment anywhere despite having then published over 30 scientific papers. This included the first paper by an African-American in the prestigious journal Science. Publishing 30 scientific papers as a recent graduate was almost unheard of in the early 1900s, and still is today.

Unable to secure an academic position, he was forced to teach at various high schools, moving from school to school before settling down at the age of 41 at the African-American Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri. He remained there until his retirement in 1922. While at Sumner High School, Dr. Turner published an average of two articles per year, a rate exceeding most of his contemporaries teaching in colleges and universities.

Dr Turner’s achievements are even more remarkable when considering that he worked with unconventional organisms that required mastery of a wide range of rearing and research techniques.[4] Most of us, including me, worked only with Norwegian white rats. Turner worked with, and became an expert on, ants, honeybees, cockroaches, butterflies, crustaceans, caterpillars, antlions, mud dauber wasps, moths, pigeons, spiders, and even some plants. [5]

Some of Turner’s research areas include the first controlled studies of color and pattern vision in honeybees. He conclusively proved that honeybees can perceive both color and pattern differences, thus can be very selective in their plant choices for nectar.[6] He also did extensive anatomical studies of both avian and crustacean brains. It is easy to understand why he is today regarded as one of the most influential scientists working in the area of comparative behavior from the late 1890s through the early 1920s.

Discrimination

The fact that he was unable to obtain an academic position is clear evidence of the discrimination he faced. The reasons were not hidden. It was widely regarded by scientists then that Blacks were less evolved than Caucasians, and were closer to our primate ape ancestors. This belief was widely taught in the colleges and universities of the time.

The most popular biology textbook in the early 1900s, Hunter’s Civic Biology stated, if members of inferior races

were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.[7]

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Hunter was no minor figure in science but was a leading author of biology textbooks. He wrote or co-wrote 20 textbooks about biology or teaching biology. This biology textbook was at the crux of the Scopes Trial, and is discussed in my new book, The Other Side of the Scopes Monkey Trial (see 6 Dec 2023).

The perception that Blacks were less evolved and thus less capable of doing work in science was illustrated by the editor of Science who opined in 1913 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advance of Science that “There is not a single mulatto [mixed Black-White  race] who has done credible scientific work.”[8] This claim was ironic in view of the fact that Turner had already published twice in Science, once on avian brains and another paper on leaf production in grapevines. He published a total of 28 research papers even before completing his PhD! As a newly minted PhD, he even published in the prestigious Journal of Comparative Neurology on spider brains and again on snake feeding behavior.[9]

Peer Review

To be published in a scientific journal requires undergoing peer review. Peer review means the paper must be approved by the leading experts in the field the paper addresses. If a research study on honeybee behavior is submitted, the paper will be sent to two or three leading academics who publish in the area of honeybee behavior. The reviewers are blind, thus the reviewers do not know who wrote the paper. This ensures the paper submission will be judged purely on the paper’s quality, not the reputation of the author, although sometimes this fact is obvious to the reviewer. If all of the reviewers approve the paper’s publication, it will be published. If concerns are noted, the author may be asked to revise the paper, or it may be rejected. In Turner’s case, it was unlikely that the reviewers and the journal editor would have known he was an African-American. Thus, even if the reviewers were prejudiced this bias would not have entered in their decision.

This being the case, Turner still faced discrimination in applying for academic positions. He was favorably reviewed for one position but the head professor’s untimely death prevented him from being hired. His replacement, said that the university “would not hire a N*****.” Consequently, this offer fell through. The fact is, “Turner and other African-American  scientists at the time faced great prejudice on a daily basis” regardless of their qualifications.[10] This story, however, would have turned out very differently if the norm in science at the time had been to accept the fact that all humans descended from Adam and Eve, and that there is only one race—the human race—just as the Bible clearly proclaims.

References

[1] Abramson, Charles. A Hidden Life of Research. American Scientist, 112:24-29. January 2024 p. 24

[2] Ross, Michael. Bug Watching With Charles Henry Turner. New York: Carolrhoda Books. 1997.

[3] Turner, Charles. The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior. The Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 17(5), 1907. Reprint by Leopold Classic Library. 2015.

[4] Abramson, Charles. “A Study in Inspiration: Charles Henry Turner (1867–1923) and the Investigation of Insect Behavior”. Annual Review of Entomology54 (1): 343–359. 2009.

[5] Lee, D. N. “Charles Henry Turner, Animal Behavior Scientist.” Scientific American Blog Network. 2012. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/urban-scientist/charles-henry-turner-animal-behavior-scientist/

[6] Ross, 1997.

[7]  Hunter, George. 1914. A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems. New York: American Book Company. 263.

[8] Abramson, 2024. p. 24.

[9] Harrington, Janice. Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner. New York: Calkins Creek. 2019.

[10] Abramson, 2024, 26.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,800 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 60 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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