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Solomon Carter Fuller

Solomon Carter Fuller
August 11, 1872 – January 16, 1953
Notable: Neurologist
Nationality: Liberian

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Solomon Carter Fuller was born in Monrovia, Liberia to Anna Ursilla (nee James) and Solomon C. Fuller. His paternal grandfather had been enslaved in Virginia before purchasing his and his wife’s freedom. They lived for a time in Norfolk, Virginia before moving to Liberia in 1852 as part of a group of Black Americans that intended to establish a settlement. His maternal grandparents were medical missionaries who were based in Liberia.

Fuller’s father worked as a coffee planter and government official but also found time to provide his son with an education. In 1889, Fuller left Liberia for Salisbury, North Carolina where he would attend Livingston College and obtain a bachelor’s degree. Next, he enrolled at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, New York but would complete his MD at Boston University. It’s believed that Fuller’s interest in medicine was inspired by his maternal grandparents.

He participated in a 2-year internship at Boston’s Westborough State Hospital, one of Masschusettes’ mental institutions. While there he studied the brains of patients who had died at Westboro and conducted blood tests on living patients. Based on his observation and research, Fuller came to believe that mental illness was at least caused in part by a patient’s neurological anatomy. Upon completion of his internship, Fuller was offered and accepted the positions of Pathologist and Instructor of Pathology at Boston University. After a few years, Fuller moved on to Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York with hopes of expanding his skills under the guidance of Professor Edward Dunham.

In 1904, Fuller was selected by Alois Alzheimer to be one of five foreign lab research assistants to study and work at the University of Munich’s newly created Royal Psychiatric Hospital. The year that Fuller spent in Germany would have a profound impact on his career. The hospital was state-of-the-art for its time and offered an opportunity to conduct research in the field of neuropathology where he observed distinct abnormalities in the brains of patients. Five years later, Dr. Emil Kraepelin who led the hospital would name the disease “Alzheimer’s”.

Upon returning to America, Fuller continued his work as a researcher and pathologist at Westborough Hospital but now with particular attention paid to what would come to be known as Alzheimer’s. One of his responsibilities as a pathologist was to conduct autopsies during which he observed the presence of specific features and traits in the brains of deceased dementia patients. Fuller translated some of Alzheimer’s research into English and also established a research journal in which he wrote about Alzheimer’s, establishing himself as a thought leader. His work provided support for Alzheimer’s findings that the disease which bore his name was caused by a physical disease of the brain that resulted in mental illness rather than the catch-all term of insanity.

After WWI, a Veteran’s Hospital was established in Tuskegee, Alabama. Black veterans were at risk of side effects of syphilis causing them to be misdiagnosed and deemed ineligible for military benefits. In addition to directly providing care for patients, Fuller helped to recruit and train Black psychiatrists for the facility. This was part of his goal of helping to reduce the presence and impact of racial bias and disparities in mental health care. Later during WWII, Fuller was part of a medical board that focused on how war affected the brains of both veterans and civilians.

Fuller spent the majority of his professional life working at Boston University during which time he made major contributions to the field of Alzheimer’s research. Despite these efforts, Fuller never rose above the position of associate professor. For unclear reasons, Fuller was not on the university’s official payroll which resulted in him being paid less than his White counterparts. For five years he functioned as the chair of the Department of Neurology only to have a more junior White colleague be awarded a full professorship and the official title of department chair. Frustrated by this long-term and ongoing discrimination, Fuller retired from Boston University in 1933.

Fuller continued working in private practice until diabetes caused him to become completely blind around 1944. On January 16, 1953, Solomon Carter Fuller died from complications caused by diabetes and gastrointestinal cancer. He was survived by his wife, the artist, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller who he had married in 1909 and had three sons.

Fuller made tremendous contributions to the field of neurology, was a pioneer in Alzheimer’s research and is recognized as America’s first Black psychiatrist. Although he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Livingstone College, he did not receive the honors typically awarded to a person with his achievements until several years after his death.

Sources

  1. “Black History Month: Honoring Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller.” 2022. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. February 16, 2022. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/black-history-month-honoring-dr-solomon-carter-fuller/.
  2. Cavanaugh, Ray. 2021. “On World Alzheimer’s Day, the Black Doctor Who Helped Decode the Disease.” The Washington Post. WP Company. September 21, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/09/21/world-alzheimers-day-solomon-carter-fuller/.
  3. Heung, Camille. 2021. “Solomon Carter Fuller (1872-1953).” BlackPast.org. October 12, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/fuller-solomon-carter-1872-1953/.
  4. Mohammad, Hamzah. 2020. “Recognizing African-American Contributions to Neurology: The Role of Solomon Carter Fuller (1872–1953) in Alzheimer’s Disease Research.” Alzheimer’s Association. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. December 15, 2020. https://alz-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/alz.12183.
  5. “Solomon Carter Fuller.” n.d. Consortium on the History of African Americans in the Medical Professions. University of Virginia. Accessed August 16, 2022. https://chaamp.virginia.edu/node/3844.

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