During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Solomon Carter Fuller who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn about more important figures.
Born: Aug. 11, 1872, Monrovia, Liberia
Died: 1953, Framingham, Massachusetts
Known best for: Being the first African American psychiatrist and contributing to research surrounding Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders
Solomon Carter Fuller was an American-Liberian who was the first African American psychiatrist. His most notable work included research about degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s. Fuller’s grandparents were slaves in Virginia who bought their freedom. The prospect of former slaves returning to Africa was popular at the time, and under the American Colonization Society, Fuller’s father and paternal grandparents settled in Liberia as part of a settlement of African Americans. Fuller’s maternal grandparents were missionaries and doctors in Liberia as well.
As a young man, Fuller migrated to the U.S. to attend Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He attended Long Island Medical School in Brooklyn. While there, he attended the American Psychological Association’s 50th annual meeting where neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell delivered a keynote speech about the psychiatric field’s need to advance. Fuller soon became one of the doctors who would advance it.
Fuller completed his medical degree at the Boston University School of Medicine. He was an unpaid intern at the Westboro State Hospital in Boston and continued there as a pathologist. Throughout his time at the hospital, he performed autopsies, during which he was able to study the brain cells of mentally ill patients who had died. He hypothesized that there was a link between one’s anatomy and mental illness. He also ran blood tests on living patients to further investigate these links. In doing so, Fuller became among the first to connect a doctor’s work with a laboratory researcher’s work in the field of psychiatry.
Fuller’s research majorly contributed to research surrounding Alzheimer’s disease. After graduating, he continued his studies at the University of Munich in Germany where he studied neuropathology, the study of diseases that occur in the nervous system. He worked alongside Alois Alzheimer and five other foreign students to do research at the university. Upon returning to the U.S., Fuller continued his research and in a 1911 publication, revealed one of the known causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Fuller published several papers on neurological psychiatry throughout his career.
Fuller later taught at the Boston University School of Medicine, making him one of the first African American physicians to teach at a multiracial institution. During his time there, he continued to present his research on the connections between mental disorders and physical disease. He invented the photomicrograph, a way to photograph pathology slides through a microscope lens.
Ultimately, Fuller retired amid acts of discrimination against him. He was recognized as a good professor, but was never given a position as the chair of the neurology department, despite having functioned as a chair during some of his time there. Instead, a white assistant professor got the role. He was also never officially placed on the university’s payroll and therefore was compensated, but not fairly.
During World War II, Fuller was part of the Advisory Medical Board No. 17. and discussed the impact war had on the brains of veterans and civilians.
Fuller was a member of various medical organizations: the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, New York Psychiatric Society, American Psychiatric Society, American Medical Association, the Boston Society for Psychiatry and Neurology, Massachusetts Medical Society, the New England Medical Society and the New England Psychiatric Association.
As Fuller got older, his sight deteriorated, but he still saw patients at his private practice until he died in Framingham, Massachusetts from complications with diabetes.
The Boston Society for Psychiatry and Neurology posthumously published a number of resolutions honoring Fuller in the New England Journal of Medicine. In 1971, the Black Psychiatrists of America presented a portrait of Fuller to the American Psychiatric Association. Two years later, the Boston University School of Medicine held a conference in honor of Fuller. The Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston is named in his honor.