Dr. Allen Counter is a just-barely-believable modern Renaissance man: Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, active member of the Explorers Club, founding director of the intercultural institute The Harvard Foundation, Consul General of Sweden for the New England states, mingler with the internationally famous — he could star in a series of action novels by Lee Child or James Patterson, except that he is not secretly an expert assassin. (Actually, I suppose he could be, so I’d better watch what I say about him.) His work as an explorer is what first brought him widespread public recognition, when in the 1980s he traveled to Qaanaaq, the northernmost settlement in Greenland, and met (and revealed to the world) the elderly children of Robert Peary and Matthew Henson. The two American men had each fathered children by Inuit women during their 1906 expedition to seek the North Pole. Dr. Counter arranged for these children and some of their descendants to travel to the United States and visit their living relatives and the graves of their fathers.
About five years ago, Dr. Counter returned to Qaanaaq to solve a medical mystery affecting the elders of that village. Almost all of the older men of the village were going deaf. This is a dangerous loss in the Arctic, where the traditional Inuit hunters depended on their hearing to detect hazards such as cracking sea ice or approaching polar bears. Oddly, the affliction affected far fewer women. Dr. Counter arranged for testing the village residents, confirming that most post-adolescent males seemed to have suffered from hearing loss to a degree proportional to their age. He tested for disease and for malnutrition and found no leads — certainly nothing that could account for the gender disparity. Finally, accompanying the Qaanaaq elders as they undertook their traditional daily routines, he discovered with a flash of insight the source of their deafness. These Inuit men still lived largely according to their age-old traditions, stalking seals on the ice or waiting for them to pop out of water holes — except that nowadays, instead of harpoons, they used rifles. Dr. Counter realized that the cumulative effect of crack of the rifle shots on the Inuit’s unprotected ears was what was causing the deafness. This explained why the only women who were affected were those who consistently accompanied their husbands on the hunt. The deafness was permanent, but, having discovered the cause, Dr. Counter could at least provide a solution to stop future damage: he arranged for the villagers to be provided with special earplugs suited to the Arctic conditions. Another medical mystery solved by American enterprise and ingenuity!
At least, that’s how it was presented in the press. (Here’s where I hope Dr. Counter isn’t secretly a ninja.) But is it really likely that the Inuit had no clue about the effect of gunfire on their hearing before Dr. Counter arrived? That the men regularly pulled the trigger, heard an explosion that made their ears ring and deadened sound for several minutes afterward, and never thought to themselves later, “Hmmm . . . I wonder if all that repetitive gunfire has anything to do with the fact that I can’t hear other people speaking now?”? That the men didn’t sit around together at night, comparing notes and shouting, “Yeah! Same thing happens to me whenever I shoot!”?
Not to minimize the contribution of the talented and possibly lethal Dr. Counter. His medical tests confirmed the cause, and he provided a solution for the future. And even if the elderly Inuit had suspected that their hearing loss was the result of long-term exposure to gunfire, they could not have predicted that result when they first traded their harpoons for rifles. Nor could the younger Inuit, trained to rely on firearms, have easily avoided the source of the problem themselves. I imagine the real story was not so much the unraveling of a baffling mystery as it was an exercise in co-operative problem solving. “Sure, Dr. C, we know these guns are loud, but what can we do about it?”
Most of us don’t earn our livelihoods stalking marine mammals, but there are lessons in this story for everyone facing disagreeable working conditions — whether physical (uncomfortable ergonomics, suspicious chemical odors), systematic (long or odd hours, deadline clashes), personal (poor morale, nasty colleagues), or substantive (skills mismatches, resource deficiencies). Like the Inuit who first picked up rifles for their hunt, we might recognize short-term discomfort without realizing the potential for long-term harm — but, with their example in mind, we should always at least consider that possibility. And if we feel limited by conditions — if we have to make do with the tools or the personalities we have at hand, just as the Qaanaaq Inuits had to make do with the rifles they had adapted to — then that shouldn’t be seen as the end of the inquiry. “Yes, we have to deal with these deadlines, but what else can we put in place to soften their effects?” Finally, realize that sometimes finding a solution requires some help. Talk to someone who might have a fresh perspective or access to different knowledge or resources — someone who might turn out to be a problem eliminator.