Obituaries

S. Allen Counter, 73; professor found explorers’ descendants decades later

Dr. Counter brought to the Harvard campus many celebrities, including, earlier this year, actress Viola Davis.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/File 2017

Dr. Counter brought to the Harvard campus many celebrities, including, earlier this year, actress Viola Davis.

S. Allen Counter’s research as a Harvard neurophysiologist took him far afield to Ecuador and the Amazonian rainforests, but nothing could match a trip he made in the mid-1980s to Greenland, where he found the half-Inuit sons that Robert E. Peary and African-American explorer Matthew Henson had fathered when they traveled to the North Pole in the early 1900s.

While dining with scientists in Stockholm in the late 1970s, he heard rumors that Peary and Henson had descendants in northern Greenland. Since childhood, Dr. Counter had been fascinated with the story of Henson, who planted the US flag at or near the North Pole in 1909, when Peary was too hobbled by frostbite to do so.

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During a 1986 research trip to Greenland, Dr. Counter visited a remote village to seek out dark-skinned Eskimos who might be Henson’s descendants.

“One of the great moments of my life was walking into that village, being directed there by some Eskimos, along with my Eskimo translator on the north shore of Greenland, and being introduced to a man named Anaukaq Henson,” Dr. Counter told the Globe in 1986. “He looked at me and said, ‘You must be a Henson, you’ve come to find me,’ just like that. I said, ‘No, not by bloodline, but by spirit I really am.’ And this man embraced me and said, ‘Come on and sit down and have a drink and talk.’ I knew I had seen his son.”

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Dr. Counter, who was the founding director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and had led the organization since its inception in 1981, died Wednesday. He was 73 and lived in Cambridge. Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, said in a message to the Harvard community that Dr. Counter died after a brief illness but provided no other details.

“Allen has been a thoughtful teacher, leader, and mentor to many in our community,” Khurana wrote. “In a weary world, Allen’s example lives in our hearts and minds.”

A member of Harvard’s faculty for more than 45 years, Dr. Counter was a professor of neurology. His research focused on nerve, muscle, and auditory physiology, along with the neurophysiological diagnoses for brain-injured children and adults.

Dr. Allen Counter

Dr. Counter discovered descendants of the explorer Matthew Henson in Greenland.

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In 1991, he published “North Pole Legacy: Black, White & Eskimo,” a book-length recounting of what he discovered during his Greenland trip.

“I had no idea, no belief that I eventually would come up with the kind of find I did,” Dr. Counter recalled in the 1986 Globe interview. “It is remarkable. It is remarkable. To start off just with an idea and to reach it and find an 80-year-old son of your hero.”

After locating Henson’s son, Dr. Counter traveled by helicopter and boat to an island settlement of white-skinned Eskimos in Greenland and found Kali, Peary’s 80-year-old son. Dr. Counter later arranged for the Arctic explorers’ sons to visit Cambridge in 1987 as part of what he called the “North Pole Family Reunion,” so they could meet cousins they never knew they had in the United States.

The following year, Dr. Counter successfully lobbied the federal government to allow Henson’s remains to be moved to Arlington National Cemetery and interred next to Peary’s. When Henson and Peary returned from their North Pole expedition, Peary’s accomplishments were celebrated and he was promoted to rear admiral in the Navy. Henson died penniless and initially had been buried in a cemetery in the Bronx, N.Y.

“It would be hard to explain to the son of Matthew Henson and the son of Robert Peary that one man’s father is buried in a beautiful mausoleum in Arlington National Cemetery and the other man’s father is buried in a shallow grave in New York City,” Dr. Counter told the Globe in 1987. “How do you explain that to two men who will not understand that although their fathers were together in life, they were separated in death due to race?”

In his Phi Beta Kappa oration for Harvard’s 2015 commencement, Dr. Counter recalled that while visiting Greenland in 1986, the sons of Henson and Peary “came to my igloo one evening and revealed that all their lives they had felt abandoned, and dreamed of traveling to the land of their fathers ‘just to touch the hand of a relative’ before they died. They believed they would die soon, never having fulfilled this dream, and they asked if I could help. Deeply touched, I gave them my word that I would do all in my power to help them fulfill their lifelong dream. Nothing is more rewarding than helping others fulfill their dreams.”

Samuel Allen Counter Jr. was born in Americus, Ga., a son of Samuel Counter Sr. and the former Anne Johnson. His father managed businesses and died young of a heart attack. His mother was a nurse.

The oldest of three children, Dr. Counter was called Allen by his family to distinguish his name from his father’s, and grew up in Florida, where his family moved when he was young.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from what was then Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College, and received a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Dr. Counter received a second doctorate, in medical sciences, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, where he later was a visiting professor in neuroscience. About a dozen years ago, the king of Sweden and the Swedish ambassador to the United States appointed Dr. Counter to be the country’s consul general for Boston and New England.

Dr. Counter also published essays in the Globe on topics such as why flying birds collide with airplanes, which prompted him to study the inner ears of seagulls at Logan Airport. He determined that their damaged hearing contributed to them not avoiding planes.

He also wrote about how the noise from rifles caused widespread hearing loss among Inuit hunters in Greenland, and how mercury used in gold mining in Ecuador harmed Saraguro Indian infants.

As head of the Harvard Foundation, which works to improve campus race relations, Dr. Counter commissioned portraits of distinguished minorities and women to hang in Harvard’s halls.

He also brought to the campus Nobel Prize-winners such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, along with many celebrities, among them hip-hop artist LL Cool J and, earlier this year, actress Viola Davis. In 2013, he presented the foundation’s annual humanitarian award to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived a Taliban assassination attempt. “Your words and deeds have served to advance humanity,” Dr. Counter told her.

A service will be announced for Dr. Counter, who leaves three daughters.

Though Dr. Counter was a scientist, he had a novelist’s eye for detail, as is evidenced by an early description of Anaukaq Henson in “North Pole Legacy.”

“The old Polar Eskimo, bent slightly at the waist, steps briskly across the pack ice toward his team of sled dogs,” Dr. Counter wrote. “Curled up like giant woolen balls, partially covered by a recent blizzard, the wolflike beasts come to life in response to his calls, ‘Kim-milk! Kim-milk!’ They shake the crusted snow from their thick coats and yawn with soft howls as Anaukaq greets each of them by name.”

Pop singer Rihanna laughed with Dr. Counter at Harvard earlier this year.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File

Pop singer Rihanna laughed with Dr. Counter at Harvard earlier this year.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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