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Dr. S. Allen Counter, ‘the most interesting man in the world’

Herb Boyd | 8/3/2017, 11:04 a.m.
There is no need to wait for years to go by to enshrine Dr. S. Allen Counter, who died July ...
Dr. S. Allen Counter Jr.

There is no need to wait for years to go by to enshrine Dr. S. Allen Counter, who died July 12 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. Dr. Counter was 73 and his daughter, Philippa Counter, said the cause of death was cancer. His esteemed legacy as a neurobiologist, explorer and advocate of scientific literacy was secured long before he joined the ancestors.

Along with Counter’s celebrated achievements in various fields of endeavors, I first heard of him from the passionate reflections of my good friend Playthell Benjamin. Whenever Playthell chose to extoll on memorable African-Americans, Counter would invariably be among the notables invoked. Last year, in one of his online essays on “Commentaries on the Times,” Playthell concluded that his mentor was the most interesting man in the world.

“Dr. Counter is a heroic figure who attracts stars from all quarters,” Playthell wrote, “drawing them to him like a super nova.  He is the tallest tree in our American forest, a man who really has walked with presidents and kings yet retained the common touch … the most interesting man in the world!”

Not only can Counter be considered among the most interesting men in the world—and I am sure Playthell has penned a memorable encomium for him—but also he appeared to be interested in a wide variety of issues, disciplines and intellectual pursuits.

Born Samuel Allen Counter Jr. July 8, 1944, in Americus, Ga., his mother, Anne, was a nurse and his father managed businesses before dying prematurely. He grew up in Boynton Beach, Fla., and at a very early age participated in the protests against discrimination at the white-only beach.

Counter attended Tennessee State University, where he majored in biology and sensory physiology. At Case Western University, he earned his doctorate in electrophysiology. Later, at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, he added a medical degree.

In 1970, he joined the Harvard faculty, beginning as a postdoctoral fellow and assistant neurophysiologist at the university’s medical school and at the Massachusetts General Hospital. It was during this period that he began his research as a neuroscientist focusing on nerve, muscle and auditory physiology. An additional pursuit was the diagnosis of brain injury.

Along with his commitments at the medical school and the hospital, Counter was named to the National Institute of Mental Health’s National Advisory Health Council by the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

His career took an unusual and dramatic trajectory in 1971 when, as an explorer, he located a group of people residing in the vast rain forest of northern Brazil, Surinam and French Guiana. They were descendants of African slaves who had escaped from bondage and took up refuge in the rain forest. One product of this venture was an award-winning documentary on the people entitled “I Shall Moulder Before I Shall Be Taken.” This documentary was just one of several probing documentaries of indigenous people, especially as it pertains to their labor and auditory condition.

During a similar exploratory expedition in 1986 in Greenland, he encountered two elderly Inuits, one the son of Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary and the other whose father was the famed African-American explorer Matthew Henson. After raising funds, Dr. Counter organized an event in the U.S. for the sons and their relatives to meet. At the same time, he was assiduous in his mission to ensure that Henson was attributed co-discovery of the North Pole in 1909.