Remembering the Legacy of a Mass General Neurophysiologist and Pioneer in Race Relations at Harvard

Black History Month is an annual celebration in February of achievements by African Americans. This year, we’re commemorating the life and legacy of S. Allen Counter, a Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, a neurophysiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the founding director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. Although Counter passed away in July of 2017 at the age of 73, the many impacts he made live on.

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S. Allen Counter (photo courtesy of The Harvard Gazette)

Research contributions

Allen Counter came to Harvard in 1970 as a postdoctoral fellow and assistant neurophysiologist at Mass General and Harvard Medical School. After brief stints serving on the National Advisory Mental Health Council at what is now called the Department of Health and Human Services, and teaching inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord, Counter returned to Boston.

Counter’s research focused on clinical and basic studies on nerve and muscle physiology, auditory physiology and neurophysiological diagnosis of brain-injured children and adults, and his research took him across the globe. He ventured to Ecuador to study the neural damage caused by lead-glazing in the village of La Victoria, and to China to study acupuncture.

But Counter’s most intriguing investigation took him to a remote Inuit village in Greenland to learn more about the descendants of a famed explorer.

Counter had been fascinated with the story of Matthew A. Henson, a black explorer who planted the US flag at or near the North Pole in 1909, when Admiral Robert E. Peary was too hobbled by frostbite to do so. During a 1986 research trip to Greenland, Counter managed to track down two eighty year old mixed race Eskimo men who were the surviving biological sons of Henson and Peary (born to two indigenous Inuit women in 1906).

In 1987, Counter was able to arrange for a military plane to fly the men to the United States to meet their American relatives for the first time. During that trip, Counter became aware of an injustice in how the two explorers had been buried and commemorated. Admiral Peary was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with a large white granite monument declaring him the “The discoverer of the North Pole,” while Henson, who reached the North Pole ahead of Peary and placed the American Flag in the ice pack, was buried in a non-descript grave in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Counter successfully petitioned President Regan to issue a Presidential Order to disinter Henson’s remains and move them to Arlington National Cemetery beside Peary, where Counter was permitted to place a monument crediting Henson as co-discoverer of the North Pole.

Counter’s Greenland expeditions also led him to discover the cause of widespread hearing loss among the Inuit of Greenland – he determined that their hearing loss was not caused by a virus, bacterial infection or diet, but rather by repeated exposure to rifle blasts that destroyed the hair cells of their inner ears.

Improving race relations

In addition to his research endeavors, Allen Counter is also remembered for his profound impact on inclusion and diversity at Harvard.

In 1981, Harvard established the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which promotes peace and education and supports civility, intercultural understanding, and racial harmony on campus. Counter was its first and had been its only director.

“Through his leadership of the Harvard Foundation, Counter advanced understanding among members of our community and challenged all of us to imagine and strive for a more welcoming University and a more peaceful world,” said Harvard President Drew Faust in an interview with the Harvard Gazette.

The Harvard Gazette article also says that Counter helped make minority students feel welcome and at home at Harvard, and  worked to foster a diverse community. He is remembered for his ability to bring people together around a cause, and his dedication to improving race relations at the university.

Parting thoughts

In a Phi Beta Kappa Oration delivered at the 2015 Harvard University commencement ceremony, Dr. Counter described the underlying philosophy that guided his teaching and research efforts over a 40+ year career.

“I have tried to share with my students some of the same values instilled in me by my grandmother: integrity, compassion, courage, tenacity, the bond of your word, and a thirst for exploration.”

“I have always believed that education should not be confined to the classroom, but must encompass real-world experiences if we are to produce learned, caring and cultured men and women prepared to tackle social issues and to solve global problems.”

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