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S. Allen Counter

Educator, African diaspora ethnographer, and neurophysiologist S. Allen Counter, Jr. was born on July 8, 1954 in Americus, Georgia to Samuel Counter, Sr. and Ann Johnson Counter. Counter graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1972, and went on to earn his B.S. degree in biology and audiological sciences from Tennessee State University in 1976. After earning his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in 1979, and completing his postgraduate studies in neurobiology at Harvard University, Counter was appointed to the faculty of the biology department at Harvard.

Counter was promoted to the position of associate professor of biology, and in 1981 was appointed professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School. Counter then earned his Doctor of Medical Science degree from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden in 1989. As a neurophysiologist, Counter conducted research on nerve and muscle physiology, auditory physiology and neurophysiological diagnosis of brain injuries in children and adults. Counter's scientific research also focused on the neurobiological effects of lead and mercury exposure, magnetic resonance imaging of the inner ear, balancing systems and multiple sclerosis.

Counter also pursued his secondary academic interest, African American ethnography, during the 1970s. He conducted ethnographic studies among the indigenous people of Surinam, South America. Counter's research resulted in a series of major articles, which appeared in national and international periodicals and an award-winning documentary on the culture and history of the African rain forest people entitled, "I Shall Moulder Before I Shall Be Taken."

While conducting research in Greenland in 1986, Counter met the eighty-year-old Inuit sons of the North Pole co-discoverers, Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson. Counter organized and raised the funds to bring Anaukaq Henson, Kali Peary and their families to the United States to meet their American relatives in 1987. Counter sought proper recognition for Henson’s contributions to Arctic exploration and co-discovery of the North Pole in 1909, and his work led to Henson’s body being moved from his grave in the Bronx, New York, to the Arlington National Cemetery, and the U.S. Navy commissioning a U.S.N.S. oceanographic explorer ship named in Henson's honor.

In 1993, Counter initiated research studies in the interior of Ecuador, South America, where he discovered a unique group of African descendants living high in the Andes; he later produced a documentary film on these descendants of eighteenth century slaves entitled, "Lost Africans in the Andes." From 1993 to 2000, Counter led medical teams into the Ecuadorian mountains to study health problems and provide medical services; he also conducted research to reduce the severe lead and mercury poisoning found amongst the children working in the ceramics glazing industry and gold mining areas of Ecuador.

In 1980, Counter served as the founding director of The Harvard Foundation. In addition to his professional activities, Counter lectured in classrooms and on television programs to increase scientific literacy among young people.

S. Allen Counter was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on December 8, 2005.

Counter passed away on July 12, 2017.

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Educator, neurophysiologist, and african diaspora ethnographer S. Allen Counter (1954 - 2017 ) was the director of the Harvard Foundation. He earned his Ph.D. degree in neurobiology from Case Western Reserve University, and was involved in ethnographic and scientific studies around the world.

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<a href="">Tape: 1 Slating of S. Allen Counter's interview.</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter talks about his mother and father</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter talks about his mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter talks about his siblings and his mother's side of the family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter talks about his mother and maternal family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter talks about his father</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter shares advice from his family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter describes his childhood experiences with people from other cultures</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter discusses his paternal grandfather's religious background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter recounts his childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 S. Allen Counter talks about his elementary school years</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter talks about his first participation in a civil rights protest</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter describes family life in his childhood community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter recalls swimming in the Florida Everglades as a child</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter shares the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter recalls his elementary school years, part 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter recalls his elementary school years, part 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter talks about his early interest in science</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 S. Allen Counter discusses the difference in resources between black and white schools</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter talks about his interests and influences during college at Tennessee A&I State University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter discusses the origins of black colleges and universities</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter recounts influential people in his higher education experience</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter talks about his Ph.D. research at Case Western Reserve University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter describes his post doctoral experience at Harvard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter describes his research experience in Stockholm, Sweden</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter discusses his clinical work in the field of neurophysiology</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter details his work with lead and mercury poisoning in Ecuador</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter recounts his ethnographic expedition to Suriname</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 S. Allen Counter details his ethnographic expedition to the North Pole, part 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 S. Allen Counter details his ethnographic expedition to the North Pole, part 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 S. Allen Counter talks about the culmination of his North Pole expedition</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 S. Allen Counter talks about the Harvard Foundation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 S. Allen Counter describes his position as Counsel General to Sweden</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 S. Allen Counter describes his memorial to African American slaves project</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 S. Allen Counter reflects on his life's accomplishments</a>







S. Allen Counter details his work with lead and mercury poisoning in Ecuador
Well, these scientific explorations, were they initiated in addition to your basic research or--$$Oh, yes.$$--or did your basic research come out of what you found when you did your explorations? Let's take Ecuador, for example.$$Well, the two are kind of connected but disconnected. I mean I enjoy laboratory work. I mean being at the wet bench or working in the lab is something I enjoy. I still have a lab. I've had one now all my career to do research with. But you also want to get out in the field and do things too. And I enjoy getting out in the field, exploring places, looking at some of the medical problems, seeing how we can help, bringing in teams with expertise to do solid medical, clinical work. I've been doing that now for, you know, close to twenty years. And it turns out that my work in Ecuador started as a result of going to a village where all the children had black teeth. And the moment you see this, you know from your biomedical training, from my degree in medical science, I know that that's a sign of severe lead poisoning in children, not just lead poisoning, but severe lead poisoning. This led me to try to find out if we could look at the deciduous teeth, to see the content of the lead. More than that, you can take blood samples, and I brought in medical teams and worked closely with Ecuadorian authorities who were individuals from the medical school, also the dean of the local medical school, to go out to see these children who had never received medical care in many cases, to get blood samples to bring back to analyze here in America, Children's Hospital and other centers, for free, to help these children. And we found that these children had some of the highest blood lead levels ever recorded. The CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention, near Atlanta, Georgia] says if you have ten micrograms per deciliter of lead in your blood, you're in the toxic range. Some recent studies in 'New England Journal of Medicine' suggests that even less than ten micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood of children would cause neurocognitive impairment. We found children way over one hundred micrograms per deciliter which, you know, are not even included pretty much in the standard medical text book analysis. And we were able to--I raised money personally from--or at least medication in exchange from companies like Santa Fe (Santilebo) (ph.) who gave me twenty thousand dollars worth of chelation medication. And with a group of doctors from Children's Hospital in Sweden, we were able to figure out a way to get this medicine dispensed to reduce the lead poisoning in these children.$$What was the source of the lead in the systems of these young children?$$That's a very good question. It turns out that in these villages, and there were a number of them in Ecuador, but they also exists in Mexico and Peru, the women of child-bearing age in many of these villages have as their major task, digging lead out of old car batteries that we discard and taking that lead and mixing it with water, grinding it into a slurry and glazing ceramics, particularly, roof tiles. So some of these villages, such as the ones I worked in, in La Victoria and El Tahar down in Ecuador, they make many of the overlapping brick or ceramic tiles that you see on the Spanish homes. And they cover them with lead for two reasons, primarily, it makes this clay more durable. But secondly, it's cosmetically appealing. And so a small group of people--the upper-class members of society don't do this. It's left mostly to the poor. And they don't really educate the poor about the dangers of this. And many of them are indigenous Amerindians. And that touched me deeply when I saw this sort of stratified society with discrimination. I don't like discrimination anywhere that it occurs. And I can tell you that this was seen in many areas of South America. And so that's why I stayed there to help. So I've spent ten years on that project, going back and forth taking medicines. We've had educational sessions and the education of the community will help. It lowers the level of blood lead. We've tested before and afterwards.$$Now, is mercury also a problem in these populations?$$Mercury's an extensive problem there, mercury exposure, primarily because of the gold mines in South America. Mercury is used in gold mining to separate the gold particles from the alluvial sediment, from ore. And then the mercury is burned. And as a result of that, the villagers, particularly, the women with the babies on their backs, the indigenous women, will breathe the vapors and the babies will breathe the vapors as well. And they can get exposed through elemental mercury vapors which are quite dangerous, can damage the lungs, the brain and kidneys, but also a lot of this residual mercury will leech off into the local tributaries and waterways and settle on the bottom. And that mercury is broken down, we learned only recently, by microorganisms which are then eaten by higher organisms, and finally the fish and the larger fish, and then it sort of bio-magnifies up the chain. And humans eat it. And there again, you've got methyl mercury poisoning because it methylates as a result of its position in the biota and in the water there with the microorganisms eating it. And you get methyl mercury poisoning from eating the exposed fish or other animals, the chickens that have been exposed or otherwise. And that's a very dangerous proposition. So we found high exposure levels, unbelievably high in some of the children in Ecuador, for example, up in the gold mines.