First Black PhD Student Charles Turner Remembered for Pioneering Behavior Work

Brent R. Stockwell, Ph.D.
2 min readSep 20, 2023

The impressive work of Charles Turner, one of first black students to receive a PhD in the U.S., is remembered through a postdoc award in Columbia’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Charles Turner faced fierce discrimination that severely impacted his ability to do science and have his work appreciated, but nonetheless discovered intelligent hunting behavior of animals a century before it was in vogue in the 1990s. He observed a snake hunting a lizard — when the lizard climbed up a tree to avoid being eaten, the snake slithered away, climbed a different tree to a point higher than the lizard, crossed onto the lizard’s tree, and attacked the from behind. This careful observational work on intelligent animal behavior still is not appreciated in the larger scientific community today and was ahead of his time.

Presha receives Turner Award
Presha Rajbhandari receives Charles Turner Award (Photo Credit: Tal Hirschhorn)

Charles Henry Turner was born in Cincinnati in 1967 and faced a difficult environment in the 19th and early 20th centuries because of racism, but nonetheless did pioneering work on brain anatomy and animal behavior.

To recognize his outstanding and little-known scientific work, the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia instituted the Charles H. Turner Award for Postdoctoral Studies in Biological Sciences. This year the award was given to Presha Rajbhandari for her work on mapping of the chemical composition of cells within the liver.

Turner was the first black student to receive a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati, and the first to receive a PhD from the University of Chicago. Despite his impressive work, he was not able to secure an appointment in a university, and ended up teaching in a small high school.

Even with his lack of resources and students, he managed to publish 70 papers in high profiles scientific journals throughout his life. He studied the behavior of bees and ants, and found that insects are able to both hear and learn, and that insects can undergo Pavlovian conditioning, see in color, and recognize patterns. He also discovered that individual variation is spider web-building was not purely instinctive but the product of problem-solving, learning, and intelligence.

Turner found that cockroaches display evidence of free will, noting that as these insects age, they are more deliberate and more accurate in choosing paths through a maze. This work on conciousness is still impressive today, but ignored by the neuroscience community.

The University of Chicago refused to hire Turner, despite his outstanding abilities and discoveries, using racist language in citing their refusal. As far as I know, they have never apologized for their shameful history.

Turner’s career is being celebrated and remembered at Columbia through this new postdoc award, which also raises the profile of our impressive postdoctoral scientists.

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Brent R. Stockwell, Ph.D.

Chair and Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Top Medium writer in Science, Creativity, Health, and Ideas