Hundreds Honor Counter at Memorial Service

Dr. S. Allen Counter
The late S. Allen Counter, pictured at the Cultural Rhythms festival in 2014.
Hundreds gathered to honor the life of S. Allen Counter, founding director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, at Memorial Church Wednesday afternoon.

Counter died of cancer in July at age 73. An explorer and neurobiologist, he grew up in the segregated South and joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School in 1972.

At the service, colleagues remembered Counter for his longtime leadership in improving campus-wide race relations, his mentorship to Harvard students and alumni, and his explorations of Greenland and beyond.

University President Drew G. Faust called Counter a “true citizen of the University” and praised his work in the Harvard Foundation’s portraiture project, which aims to diversify the artwork in University buildings.

Annenberg's New Portrait
A portrait of Richard T. Greener, the first African American to graduate from the College, is unveiled in Annenberg in 2016.

“There is no single way to be part of the Harvard community, but Allen’s way—collaborative, inventive, celebratory, holding our institutions to the very highest standards of what it can be and must be—that’s an example for all of us,” Faust said.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said that Counter took a “calm and respectful” approach in engaging students in dialogue and was “incredibly supportive” in providing advice during Khurana’s first year as Dean.

“For those of us who were Allen’s colleagues, losing Allen means losing a wise elder,” Khurana said. “For our students who knew him as a teacher and a leader of Harvard Foundation, it feels like losing a mentor.”

While Counter’s scientific research focused on neurophysiology, his interest in ethnography took him all over the world and led to groundbreaking discoveries. In South America, for example, Counter was the first to contact native groups in the rainforests of Suriname and the Andean mountains, bringing their existence to light through his books.

In Greenland, his research of widespread hearing loss in the native Inuit population led him to discover the long-lost descendents of North Pole pioneers Matthew A. Henson and Robert E. Peary. In 1987, Counter arranged for the descendents of Henson and Peary to visit the United States for the first time and meet their American relatives. Henson’s great-grandson attended Wednesday’s memorial service, Sean T. Brady ’89 said in his remarks at Counter’s service.

Harvard Foundation intern Devontae A. Freeland ’19 said Counter’s mentorship helped him to come of age. He described how Counter called each student by “Mr.” and “Ms.,” a sign of respect that Counter sought to spread throughout Harvard.

“Though you might only 18, 19, or 20, though you may be wealthy legacy students or young black boys, or the first group of women students at the College, Dr. Counter showed us all respect,” Freeland said.

—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wlwang20.


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