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Curtis Abraham's 'New Scientist' Magazine Interview with the Late Dr. S. Allen Counter


Allen Counter is professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and neurophysiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also founding director of the Harvard Foundation, established in 1980 to improve intercultural understanding among the university community. As well as his science, he is known for finding the 80-year-old Amer-Eskimo sons of North Pole discoverers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson in Greenland and helping them visit the US.

What started your fascination with exploration?

As a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s I grew up on the edge of the Everglades in southern Florida, but because of racial segregation my African-American and Amerindian friends and I were not allowed to swim with white children in the public swimming pools. So we resorted to playing in the swamps and canals, which were abundantly supplied with all sorts of wild animals. We were also taught about local fauna and flora by our elders. This got me interested in biology and biodiversity. I have always had the urge to get out of the laboratory and explore more of the world. I am particularly interested in Amazonia, not just in the nature but also in the indigenous people, partly because like most African-Americans I also have Amerindian blood. There are people in South America who are descended from Africans brought to the “new world” as slaves. That history fascinated me and I wanted to learn more.

Tell me about some of the communities you’ve come across.

During the early 1970s, I went to the rainforests of Suriname, then called Dutch Guiana, where I met the Saramacca. There is no purer group of Africans in the western hemisphere. They speak a language that people in Ghana can still understand. Similarly in the Ecuadorian Andes I met groups of people who by their physical appearance and in many other respects are African. They say they migrated from Columbia but many of them do not know where they came from before that.

How do they react when you tell them you share a common heritage?

That’s a tough concept for these people to grasp. It doesn’t translate so readily. They have an attachment to being Hispanic and they also know that they are different, but looking across at Africa and seeing the tragedies that go on there not everyone would be excited about saying they are descended from Africans.

Much of your scientific work has been on the effects of mercury and lead poisoning among indigenous South Americans. How did you come across this? When I was in Suriname during the 1970s, I witnessed a lot of gold panning by foreign companies, though the work was carried out by Amazonian Indians. They were using mercury to extract gold from the alluvial sediments and the mercury was simply being discharged into the Amazon’s river systems. I found this appalling. Then I discovered that people were being poisoned by the mercury. In Ecuador, we took hair samples from schoolchildren and their parents and discovered that their exposure to mercury was considerable. This can lead to a loss of neurons and can cause involuntary shaking, deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and general paralysis. We found children in southern Ecuador who displayed many of these symptoms.

How exactly are they being poisoned?

One source is from the vapor produced by burning mercury. Amerindian men who work in the mines keep some of the ore and give it to their wives, who mix it with liquid mercury to separate out the gold. It’s a typical sight to see a group of these women in a hut with infants on their backs, heating the amalgam balls in metal pots. A second source of poisoning is from eating contaminated fish. What about lead poisoning? Impoverished people in these areas can make a humble living by recycling the lead in old car batteries for use in roof tiles. We found some of the highest lead levels ever recorded in the children and in many of the adults, over 100 micrograms per decilitre. You only see such levels in a western country if a child has ingested lead paint or something comparable. It can severely damage the central nervous system, which can lead to cognitive disorders.

How is it affecting people’s behavior?

The strange thing is that many of these Ecuadorian children remain healthy. We had one little boy in our clinic, Miguel, who was 18 months old and looked healthy.

When we got the results of the blood tests we saw there was one child on the list with 107 micrograms per decilitre of lead in his blood. It turned out to be Miguel. I was stunned because there was nothing about his behavior that suggested it. When I went back to Ecuador last spring with some of my neurotoxicology students, one of the first things we did was look for Miguel. We found him playing with a soccer ball. He seemed neurologically sound. I was so pleased he was still alive.How do you explain it?

We have no idea. We are trying to come up with some rational explanation. However, there may be other children with high lead levels who don’t survive. We saw one father who had lost 9 of his 12 children at an early age and he was very involved in lead recycling.

How are you helping solve these problems?

Recently we started the Lead Education and Prevention Program (LEPP). We go to individual homes and explain the hazards and try to get them to switch to a non-lead glazing compound. We also provided chelation therapy. It can be hard for people in Ecuador to believe that lead is dangerous: when you show them the blood lead levels it’s not very meaningful to them. We have also initiated a mercury education program.

How did you come to visit the Arctic Circle?

My grandmother used to talk about a hero named Matthew Henson who accompanied the explorer Robert Peary to the North Pole in 1906 but had never been given credit for it. Later I traveled to Greenland to learn more about him from the Inuit and was introduced to an elderly Eskimo who turned out to be Henson’s son. I was then introduced to a man who turned out to be Peary’s son. These men said that they had never been to the land of their fathers and that before they died they would like to physically touch a member of their fathers’ families. I managed to get permission to fly them to the US, where they met their families and toured places that were of significance to their fathers’ lives.

How do you feel about Will Smith playing you in a Hollywood biopic?

I am flattered. Will Smith is one of the most brilliant and outstanding young men I have met. He’s a role model for other young people in America and I really admire him. He’ s been our guest at Harvard. I’m honored that he would consider my life for one of his films


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