Charles Henry Turner: The little-known Black high school science teacher who revolutionized the study of insect behavior in the early 20th century

Turner was the first scientist to prove certain insects could remember, learn and feel. Courtesy of Charles I. Abramson, CC BY-ND

by Edward D. Melillo, Amherst College

On a crisp autumn morning in 1908, an elegantly dressed African American man strode back and forth among the pin oaks, magnolias and silver maples of O’Fallon Park in St. Louis, Missouri. After placing a dozen dishes filled with strawberry jam atop several picnic tables, biologist Charles Henry Turner retreated to a nearby bench, notebook and pencil at the ready.

Following a midmorning break for tea and toast (topped with strawberry jam, of course), Turner returned to his outdoor experiment. At noon and again at dusk, he placed jam-filled dishes on the park tables. As he discovered, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were reliable breakfast, lunch and dinner visitors to the sugary buffet. After a few days, Turner stopped offering jam at midday and sunset, and presented the treats only at dawn. Initially, the bees continued appearing at all three times. Soon, however, they changed their arrival patterns, visiting the picnic tables only in the mornings.

This simple but elegantly devised experiment led Turner to conclude that bees can perceive time and will rapidly develop new feeding habits in response to changing conditions. These results were among the first in a cascade of groundbreaking discoveries that Turner made about insect behavior.

Across his distinguished 33-year career, Turner authored 71 papers and was the first African American to have his research published in the prestigious journal Science. Although his name is barely known today, Charles Henry Turner was a pioneer in studying bees and should be considered among the great entomologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. While researching my book on human interactions with insects in world history, I became aware of Turner’s pioneering work on insect cognition, which constituted much of his groundbreaking research on animal behavior.

Humble beginnings

Turner was born in Cincinnati in 1867, a mere two years after the Civil War ended. The son of a church custodian and a nurse who was formerly enslaved, he grew up under the specter of Jim Crow – a set of formal laws and informal practices that relegated African Americans to second-class status.

The social environment of Turner’s childhood included school and housing segregation, frequent lynchings and the denial of basic democratic rights to the city’s nonwhite population. Despite immense obstacles to his educational goals and professional aspirations, Turner’s tenacious spirit carried him through.

As a young boy, he developed an abiding fascination with small creatures, capturing and cataloging thousands of ants, beetles and butterflies. An aptitude for science was just one of Turner’s many talents. At Gaines High School, he led his all-Black class, securing his place as valedictorian.

Turner went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Cincinnati, and he became the first African American to receive a doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago. Turner’s cutting-edge doctoral dissertation, “The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior,” was later excerpted in the September 1907 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology.

Despite his brilliance, Turner was unable to secure long-term employment in higher education. The University of Chicago refused to offer him a job, and Booker T. Washington was too cash-strapped to hire him at the all-Black Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.

Black and white photo of a large brick high school building.
Sumner High School in St. Louis, Mo., circa 1908. Missouri Historical Society

Following a brief stint at the University of Cincinnati and a temporary position at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), Turner spent the remainder of his career teaching at Sumner High School in St. Louis. As of 1908, his salary was a meager US$1,080 a year – around $34,300 in today’s dollars. At Sumner – without access to a fully equipped laboratory, a research library or graduate students – Turner made trailblazing discoveries about insect behavior.

Probing the minds of insects

Among Turner’s most significant findings was that wasps, bees, sawflies and ants – members of the Hymenoptera order – are not simply primitive automatons, as so many of his contemporaries thought. Instead, they are organisms with the capacities to remember, learn and feel.

Black and white engraving of a variety of bees from 1894.
Bees were not well understood at the turn of the 20th century. Illustration published by Popular Encyclopedia, 1894. mikroman6/Moment via Getty Images

During the early 1900s, biologists were aware that flowers attracted bee pollinators by producing certain scents. However, these researchers knew next to nothing about the visual aspects of such attractions, when bees were too far from the flowers to smell them.

To investigate, Turner pounded rows of wooden dowels into the O’Fallon Park lawn. Atop each rod, he affixed a red disk dipped in honey. Soon, bees began traveling from far away to his makeshift “flowers.”

Turner then added a series of “control” rods topped with blue disks that bore no honey. The bees paid little heed to the new “flowers,” demonstrating that visual signals provided guidance, when the bees were too distant to smell their targets. Although a honeybee’s ability to detect red remains controversial, scientists have determined that Turner’s bees were likely responding to something called achromatic stimuli, which allowed them to discern among various shades and tints.

Lasting legacies of an underappreciated pioneer

Turner’s astounding range of findings from three decades of experiments established his reputation as an authority on the behavioral patterns of bees, cockroaches, spiders and ants.

As a scientific researcher without a university position, he occupied an odd niche. In large part, his situation was the product of systemic racism. It was also a result of his commitment to training young Black students in science.

Alongside his scientific publications, Turner wrote extensively on African American education. In his 1902 essay “Will the Education of the Negro Solve the Race Problem?” Turner contended that trade schools were not the pathway to Black empowerment. Instead, he called for widespread public education of African Americans in all subjects: “if we cast aside our prejudices and try the highest education upon both white and Black, in a few decades there will be no Negro problem.”

Turner was only 56 when he died of acute myocarditis, an infectious heart inflammation. He was survived by two children and his second wife, Lillian Porter.

Turner’s scientific contributions endure. His articles continue to be widely cited, and entomologists have subsequently verified most of his conclusions.

Despite the colossal challenges he faced throughout his career, Charles Henry Turner was among the first scientists to shed light on the secret lives of bees, the winged pollinators that ensure the welfare of human food systems and the survival of Earth’s biosphere.

Edward D. Melillo, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Amherst College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Uncovering the hidden gems of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American parks

Read the full story at Fast Company.

Olmsted is best known for designing Central Park, but he also designed hundreds of other spaces around the country. A new guide highlights some of his lesser-known works.

The Great Lakes before the 1972 Water Quality Agreement

Lake Okonoka, on Belle Isle in the Detroit River, was cut off from the river system in the 1950s. A project, completed in 2020, restored that connection. Credit: Friends of the Detroit River/EPA

Read the full story at Great Lakes Connection.

Over the past two centuries, western settlement and the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the water quality of the Great Lakes. New economic activities and cultural centers were spawned, while the lakes saw new (and often unwanted) species and pollution from industry, agriculture and cities.

The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement provided a path forward for Canada and the United States to jointly address these issues. The two nations have made much progress in the years since. April 15 marked the 50th anniversary of the Agreement’s signing.

But the Agreement was not the start of efforts to restore the lakes. Since its inception in 1909, the International Joint Commission (IJC) has been involved in Great Lakes water quality issues. Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty states that all transboundary waters “shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.” Within that scope (more limited than the Agreement as a whole), governments tasked the IJC  several times prior to the Agreement to assess the Great Lakes and make recommendations.

A mild-mannered biker triggered a huge debate over humans’ role in climate change – in the early 20th century

Guy Stewart Callendar connected carbon dioxide concentrations with rising temperatures. GS Callendar Archive, University of East Anglia

by Sylvia G. Dee, Rice University

In 1938, a British engineer and amateur meteorologist made a discovery that set off a fierce debate about climate change.

Scientists had known for decades that carbon dioxide could trap heat and warm the planet. But Guy Callendar was the first to connect human activities to global warming.

He showed that land temperatures had increased over the previous half-century, and he theorized that people were unwittingly raising Earth’s temperature by burning fossil fuels in furnaces, factories and even his beloved motorcycles.

When Callendar published his findings, it set off a firestorm. The scientific establishment saw him as an outsider and a bit of a meddling gentleman scientist. But, he was right.

His theory became widely known as “the Callendar Effect.” Today, it’s known as global warming. Callendar defended his theory until his death in 1964, increasingly bewildered that the science met such resistance from those who did not understand it.

Building on over a century of climate science

A theoretical basis for climate change had been developed over the 114 years leading up to Callendar’s research.

Scientists including Joseph Fourier, Eunice Foote, John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius had developed an understanding of how water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere trapped heat, noted that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also absorbed large quantities of heat and speculated about how increasing fossil fuel use could raise Earth’s temperature and change the climate.

However, these scientists spoke only of future possibilities. Callendar showed global warming was already happening.

A page from a Callendar's 1938 paper show charts of temperature rise
A page from Guy Callendar’s 1938 paper shows how he tracked and calculated CO2 changes, all in his spare time. GS Callendar, 1938

An engineer runs his own climate experiments

Callendar received a certificate in mechanics and mathematics from City and Guilds College, London, in 1922 and went to work for his father, a well-known British physicist. The two shared interests in physics, motorcycles, racing and meteorology.

Callendar would later join the U.K. Ministry of Supply in armament research during World War II and continued to conduct war-related research at Langhurst, a secret research facility, after the war.

But his climate change work was done on his own time. Callendar kept journals with detailed weather data, including carbon dioxide levels and temperature. In an innovative paper published in 1938, he claimed there was an “increase in mean temperature, due to the artificial production of carbon dioxide.”

He averaged diverse sets of temperature data from all over the world, primarily using the Smithsonian publication “World Weather Records,” and derived global average temperatures that track very well with current estimates of the average temperatures of the time.

Tweet of graph showing Callendar's measurements
Ed Hawkins/Twitter

He also calculated how much carbon dioxide humans were putting into the atmosphere – the annual net human addition. In 1938, it was about 4.3 billion tons, which compares well with current estimates for that year of about 4.2 billion tons. Note that global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 were about 36 billion tons.

Gathering published data on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, Callendar created a graph correlating temperature increases over time with increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

What Callendar discovered

Perhaps most importantly, Callendar recognized that new data on the heat absorption of carbon dioxide at wavelengths different from that of water vapor meant that adding carbon dioxide would trap more heat than water vapor alone.

In the period before Callendar’s paper, key scientists thought the huge volume of water vapor in the atmosphere, one of the “greenhouse” gases that keep Earth warm, would dwarf any contribution by carbon dioxide to Earth’s heat balance. However, heat is radiated out to space as waves, with a range of wavelengths, and water vapor absorbs only some of those wavelengths. Callendar knew that recent, more precise absorption data showed that carbon dioxide absorbed heat at wavelengths that water missed.

Callendar also considered different layers in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide concentrates at a higher altitude in the atmosphere than water vapor. Atmospheric water vapor evaporates and then precipitates out of the atmosphere as rain or snow, but adding carbon dioxide severely upsets Earth’s energy balance because it stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Carbon dioxide forms a heat-trapping layer high in the atmosphere, absorbing heat that radiates upward from Earth’s surface and then emitting it back towards Earth’s surface. Callendar’s paper provided insight into this mechanism.

After Callendar published his paper, global warming caused by human activities generating carbon dioxide was widely referred to as the “Callendar Effect.”

However, his 1938 view was limited. Callendar did not foresee the magnitude of temperature rise that the world now faces, or the danger. He actually speculated that by burning carbon we might forestall “the return of the deadly glaciers.”

His paper projected a 0.39 degree Celsius temperature rise by the 21st century. The world today is already 1.2 C (2.2 F) warmer than before the industrial era – three times the magnitude of the effect Callendar predicted.

Backlash to the human connection

The “Callendar Effect” faced immediate resistance. Comments of initial reviewers questioned his data and methods.

The debate Callendar ignited continued through the rest of the 20th century. Temperature and carbon dioxide data, meanwhile, accumulated.

By the late 20th century, reviews of climate science held stark warnings about the path the world was on as humans continued to burn fossil fuels. The debate Callendar triggered is long since over.

Scientists from around the world, brought together by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, have been reviewing the research and evidence since 1990. Their reports confirm: The science is clear about humans’ role in climate change. The danger is real and the effects of climate change are already evident all around us.

Neil Anderson, a retired chemical engineer and chemistry teacher, contributed to this article.

Sylvia G. Dee, Assistant Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, Rice University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Indian megacity maps environmental memories

Read the full story at DW.

Pollution and rampant construction have destroyed much of Mumbai’s natural coastal protection. Could recording stories from locals help create alternative visions of urban development?

How a determined congressional aide helped break open the biggest environmental scandal in U.S. history

Read the book excerpt from Politico.

Thousands of Niagara Falls residents lived in a toxic wasteland for years until a whistleblower made a call.

Excerpt from Paradise Falls: The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe by Keith O’Brien

Using data science to uncover the work of women in science

Read the full story in Smithsonian Magazine.

Scientists’ personal papers often offer key insights into a scientist’s goals and character. Without them, digital curator Dr. Elizabeth Harmon must act as a detective.

The famous and forgotten women of STEM

Read the full story from JSTOR.

Celebrate Women’s History Month with these features of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We hope that these stories will give context to the history of women in STEM, recognize their contributions around the world, and encourage up and coming women and girls in these fields.

This app lets you see what Cahokia Mounds looked like 1,000 years ago

Read the full story from St. Louis Public Radio.

Visitors to Cahokia Mounds have always needed to rely on their imagination to picture what life looked like 1,000 years ago.

“There’s really nothing to look at outside of the interpretive center, except for the mounds that are left behind,” said site superintendent Lori Belknap.

But a new augmented reality app now allows visitors to visualize the scale of the ancient city built by the Mississippians, which had a population between 10,000 and 20,000 at its height.

The shameful stories of environmental injustices at Japanese American incarceration camps during WWII

Dust storm on July 3, 1942, at the Manzanar War Relocation Authority Center in California. Dorothea Lange/Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

by Connie Y. Chiang, Bowdoin College

When Japanese fighter pilots bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Thomas S. Takemura was raising vegetables and raspberries on his family’s 14 ½-acre farm in Tacoma, Washington.

It wasn’t long after the United States declared war on Japan that Takemura and other people of Japanese ancestry were stripped of their rights and shipped off to incarceration camps scattered in small remote towns like Hunt, Idaho, and Delta, Utah. Scorching heat and dust storms added to the day-to-day misery.

Takemura’s incarceration began on May 12, 1942, just a week before he could harvest his lettuce.

“What a shame,” he later said. “What a shame.”

Takemura gave this detailed account in 1981 when he testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. This commission investigated the wrongful imprisonment of Japanese Americans, one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in American history.

All told, Takemura estimated he lost at least $10,000 in farm profits for each of the four years he was gone. But the total costs were not just about the money, he told the commission.

Takemura also lost “love and affection,” he testified, “and much more when a person is ordered to evacuate and leave his home without knowing where he is going or when he can return. … To me, words cannot describe the feeling and the losses.”

Wartime hysteria

Takemura’s wartime tragedy was the result of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, 80 years ago this month. The order allowed for the creation of military areas from which people could be excluded.

It did not mention any specific racial group but Japanese Americans were the clear target because of widespread fear that they would become spies for the Japanese government or commit acts of sabotage within the United States.

A crowd of men gathers behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he signs a paper.
On Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the U.S. declaration of war against Japan. Bettmann/GettyImages

On March 2, Gen. John L. Dewitt, head of the Western Defense Command, created Military Area 1, which encompassed western Washington, Oregon and California and southern Arizona, and Military Area 2, which included the rest of these states. By the end of summer 1942, roughly 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were United States citizens, had been expelled from their homes in Military Area 1 and the California portion of Military Area 2.

They were confined in 10 hastily constructed camps in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas. While some were allowed to leave camp for military service, college or jobs, many lived in these desolate places until the war ended three years later.

Japanese Americans’ wartime experiences have been the subject of numerous books, essays, memoirs, novels, films, museum exhibits and podcasts – all of which highlight their fortitude in the face of this blatant violation of their civil liberties. Because many survivors tried to move on with their lives quickly, the postwar period does not figure prominently in most of these narratives.

A black-and-white photo shows a woman standing in the doorway of one of a series of connected huts bordered by a muddy ditch.
Japanese American families lived in these converted horse stalls at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, shown in this April 29, 1942, photograph. Dorothea Lange/Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

But there was a gathering wave of discontent among some Japanese Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. With the backdrop of the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, leaders of the Japanese Americans Citizens League and many other activists began to push for redress. They sought the restoration of civil rights, a formal apology and monetary compensation from the U.S. government.

With the support of U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga and U.S. Reps. Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui, the league’s redress committee, led by John Tateishi, successfully lobbied Congress to create the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980.

Its nine appointed members were tasked by Congress to review Executive Order 9066 and other military directives that required the detention of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens. In addition to conducting archival research, they traveled across the country to take testimony from over 750 witnesses, including Takemura, between July and December 1981.

Over 20 days of hearings, Japanese Americans’ poignant stories of freedoms extinguished and indignities endured poured out like a flood and coursed through the hearing rooms.

Environmental hazards

As Takemura’s story suggests, many testimonies made clear that Japanese Americans’ wartime anguish was embedded in the natural environment, from the temperate lands of the Pacific coast to the arid deserts of the inland West.

In other words, the impact of Executive Order 9066 was not just political, economic and cultural. It was also environmental. When former farmers spoke of their displacement, they referred to specific plots of land and specific crops, their years of tending the soil lost to neglect or rapacious speculators.

Like Takemura, Clarence I. Nishizu, whose family farmed in Orange County, California, kept on planting vegetables after the war started, “since I thought that I, as an American citizen, would not be subject to evacuation and internment,” Nishizu later testified.

He was proved wrong, and his family members lost their crops and land. “I was uprooted just at the time when the bud of the rose started to bloom,” he testified.

A black-and-white photo depicts seven people squatting in a strawberry field holding harvesting boxes, with mountains and farm buildings visible behind them.
In this April 5, 1942, photograph, a Japanese American family harvests strawberries near Mission San Jose, California, just a few days before their forced removal. Dorothea Lange/Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Japanese Americans’ despair was also tied to the harsh environmental conditions of the camps, from blistering heat to blinding dust storms. In describing the trip to Manzanar, a “barren and desolate” camp in eastern California, Dr. Mary Oda recalled, “My first reaction to camp was one of dismay and disbelief.”

In addition to the emotional toll wrought by the bleak surroundings, the physical toll was considerable. Oda said her older sister developed bronchial asthma, “a reaction to the terrible dust storms and winds,” and died at the age of 26. Her father had “constant nasal irritation” and later died of nose and throat cancer.

Oda was not alone in enduring the untimely deaths of beloved family members. Toyo Suyemoto testified about the environment’s devastating impact on her son’s health. Starting at the Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack where horse stalls housed humans, infant Kay developed asthma and allergies and struggled with these conditions until his death in 1958 at the age of 16.

Her voice cracking ever so slightly, she concluded, “I simply wonder, members of the commission, what my son, Kay, who would have been 40 years old this year, might be able to tell you today had he lived, for he was a blessing to me.”

A formal US apology

One year after the hearings, the commission published Personal Justice Denied, a nearly 500-page report that concluded Executive Order 9066 was driven by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

Even former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson admitted, “to loyal citizens this forced evacuation was a personal injustice.”

The testimonies validated this point hundreds of times over, but they demonstrated that the incarceration was also an environmental injustice.

Japanese Americans’ losses and suffering did not emerge in an environmental vacuum. The federal government’s decision to wrest them away from their land and place them in unfamiliar and unforgiving places contributed to and amplified wartime inequities.

Based on the commission’s recommendations, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, giving every living victim a formal presidential apology and $20,000. All told, 82,219 people received redress.

The success of the redress movement, however, did not mark the end of political action. Takemura spoke about his wartime experiences in local high school history classes for several years before his death in 1997, recognizing that many young people were “completely ignorant” about the incarceration.

Survivors and their families, activists and scholars also remain vocal, and they continue to draw attention to the environmental dimensions of the Japanese American incarceration. Most years, they make pilgrimages to the former camp sites, some of which are administered by the National Park Service as national historic sites, landmarks and monuments.

As they speak about the fragility of civil rights, then and now, they gaze at the same lonely vistas as their forebears and feel the wind kick up the dust or the sun beat down on their faces. They experience, even for a brief moment, the isolation and devastation of exile and confinement.

Eighty years after Executive Order 9066, amid a sharp increase in Asian hate crimes, the fight for justice remains as urgent as ever.

Connie Y. Chiang, Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Bowdoin College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.