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Celebrating Black History: Thomas Wyatt Turner

Portrait of Thomas Wyatt Turner

Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner was the first African American to receive a PhD in Botany and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

Thomas obtained his B.S. (1901) and M.A. (1905) degrees from Howard University and then went on to teach biology at the Tuskegee Institute. In the following years he taught at multiple institutions, including public schools in Baltimore, MD and St. Louis, IL. Thomas was a professor of Botany (1914-1924) and Dean (1914-1920) at Howard University. While serving as a professor and dean of the School of Education at Howard, Turner also worked on his PhD with Otis Freeman Curtis at Cornell University and completed his degree in 1921. In his thesis “The physiological effects of salts in altering the ratio of top to root growth,” Thomas investigated the effects of different nitrate concentrations on both above soil and below soil growth in multiple crop plants, including barley, corn, and flax. He found that increased nitrate concentrations led to larger above ground plant mass relative to below ground root mass in barley and corn, but there was no effect in flax. His research is increasingly relevant for sustainable farming as soil composition changes due to agricultural practices and climate change.  

As founding member of the NAACP Thomas strongly advocated for African Americans’ right to vote and access to education for minorities. Turner served as a professor of Botany at Hampton Institute in Virginia (1924-1945), as a historically black college. He had four students who eventually went on to earn advanced degrees from Cornell too.  

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