Charles Henry Turner and the Bias in Academia

Written by Lena Kammerer.
Edited by Giulia Cottino.

Darwin, Einstein, Tesla. These names are more than familiar to most of us today. If one looks at a list of renowned scientists of past centuries, two attributes characterize most of them: they are almost all male and white. This observation opens up the question of whether exclusively the male, white population contributed to scientific advancement.

Not by any means, but unfortunately, historiography and the societies at the time have had the tendency to overlook those who did not fit into the pattern. A prime example of someone who fell victim to such a historiographical and contemporary scheme was the African American behavioral scientist Charles Henry Turner. 

Turner was born in 1867 in Ohio, just two years after the end of the American Civil War and the following abolishment of slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment. He was, respectively, the first African American who earned a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Despite being confronted with numerous, substantial obstacles because of his ethnicity – for instance, he was never given a position at any big American university – he ultimately published more than seventy papers on various topics. His research concentrated on the individual variation of behaviour, learning competencies, and intelligent problem-solving found in a variety of different animals. Ultimately, he taught at a local high school while continuing to conduct research without having access to university library resources or laboratory facilities.


Turner’s ideas and findings about animal intelligence, which were evidently pioneering and preceded present-day research by a century, did not gain much recognition from fellow scientists who mostly attributed animals with only the simplest of learning abilities. 

Accordingly, Turner’s name is still not particularly well-known in today’s world, neither in today’s history textbooks nor in present scholarly literature, although he has proven to be of great scientific value. One cannot help but wonder what Turner would have achieved with adequate support and access to research facilities. 

But what consequences does this example of discrimination in the academic world of the nineteenth century have on the world we live in today? 

History, like most social sciences, cannot be entirely objective and it is never merely a restatement of the past. By simply excluding certain individuals from the historical narrative – for example, Turner – one creates, whether consciously or unconsciously, a biased picture of the past that still has the power to sustain institutional racism today. As Bala Chaudhary, an ecologist at DePaul University Chicago, has put it: ‘Racism is reinforced by institutional and historical structures. It’s more than feelings and belief.’

Racial injustices and discrimination in academia as exemplified by Turner were carried on through the centuries, partly with the help of a historiography that largely dismissed people of colour and their achievements. 

Credit: Ousa Chea on Unsplash.

Consequently, Black academics today are still vastly underrepresented in UK higher education. UCU research has shown that a staggering 93% of university staff were white. In addition to that, recent studies have shown that Ph.D. students coming from underrepresented ethnic groups in the United States were demonstrably more efficient in producing scientific innovations when compared to the white majority, nevertheless, their work is still devalued, discounted, and less likely to earn them academic positions. This quite certainly proves that Turner’s experience was not an individual case and also not an experience of the past. 

This pronounced underrepresentation, in the past and present academic world, has an undeniable impact on students of colour today. Several Black students in the UK have stated that ‘the lack of diversity in staff was the most important issue affecting their student experience’.

Institutional racism meanders through present-day society and it is partly perpetuated by a profound historical bias. Unless we start a historical reappraisal of the past which lays the focus upon societies’ minorities and work actively towards increasing diversity in academia, we cannot call our education facilities just and equal for all.

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