Solomon Carter Fuller’s life story is a remarkable example of striving and accomplishment. He was the Nation’s first black psychiatrist, and his name will be forever associated with Alzheimer’s disease research. According to Creighton Phelps, Ph.D., director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Centers Program at the National Institute on Aging, “Solomon Carter Fuller was a pioneer in more ways than one. As a contemporary of Dr. Alzheimer, Dr. Fuller’s work helped support Alzheimer’s initial conclusion that dementia is caused by disease, not aging. Dr. Fuller performed landmark research that would help shape the burgeoning field of neuropathology. He accomplished all this against tremendous odds.”
During and after a distinguished career, Dr. Fuller received wide recognition for his groundbreaking work in neuropathology and psychiatry. Dr. Annelle Primm, director of Minority and National Affairs at the American Psychiatric Association (APA), has described Dr. Fuller as “way ahead of his time.”
Dr. Fuller attained considerable success at a time when African Americans faced many obstacles, He had good reason to be proud of his achievements, but according to a Boston psychiatrist who knew him, conceit and self-satisfaction were not in Dr, Fuller’s nature. Rather, he was a self-effacing, inspirational teacher, researcher, and mental health practitioner who cared deeply about his work and approached each day with good cheer and optimism.
A Horatio Alger story
The grandson of slaves, Dr. Fuller was born in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1872. At age 17, young Solomon journeyed to America to continue his education. Four years after his arrival, he graduated with an A.B. degree from Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC. He received his medical degree from Boston University (BU) School of Medicine in 1897. After graduation, Dr. Fuller accepted an appointment at Westborough State Hospital for the Insane, near Boston—the start of a long association. At Westborough, he worked as a pathologist for 22 years—rising to chief pathologist—and then as a consultant for an additional 23 years.
In 1899, Dr. Fuller was appointed part-time instructor in pathology at BU. By 1919, he was associate professor of neuropathology (a recent branch of the field). Dr. Fuller became the acting chair of the Neurology Department in 1928. He served in that capacity until 1933, when he retired after being passed over for the appointment as chair. He felt that his skin color was a factor in the decision.
Pioneering work in Alzheimer’s disease
In 1904 and 1905, Dr. Fuller worked under Alois Alzheimer at the University of Munich. He was one of five foreign doctors invited to assist Dr. Alzheimer in his investigation of the pathology of mental illnesses. Dr. Alzheimer relied on his research assistants to carry out much of his lab work. This gave Dr. Fuller a golden opportunity to learn about neuropathology. Soon after that period, Dr. Alzheimer reported his discovery of the disease that bears his name.
Back in America, Dr. Fuller spent long hours in his lab at Westborough concentrating on photographing and analyzing brain tissue from the cadavers of people diagnosed with various mental illnesses. Dr. Fuller found plaques composed of amyloid protein and tangles of neurofibrils—threadlike parts of neurons, in the brain tissue of some subjects, including people with “senile dementia,” which was considered a form of insanity. He was one of the first people to describe neurofibrillary tangles and to use the term “amyloid.”
In 1907, the American Journal of Insanity (AJI), later the American Journal of Psychiatry, published Dr. Fuller’s “A study of the neurofibrils in dementia paralytica, dementia senilis, chronic alcoholism, cerebral lues and microcephalic idiocy” (AJI 63: 415-46813, 1907). In the abstract, he observed:
“The writer believes… after due consideration of the objections which have been raised, that alterations in the neurofibrils which might well be considered pathological, may be demonstrated in the cerebral cortex of persons dying insane.”
In 1911, AJI published his paper on plaques in the brains of older adults, “A study of miliary plaques found in brains of the aged” (AJI 68: 147, 1911), which noted, “The plaques were the deposits in brain tissue of a chemical substance resulting from pathological metabolism of nervous elements.”
Recognition of Dr. Fuller’s importance to the field of psychiatry would transcend factors including race. His obituary was published in the New England Journal of Medicine after he died in 1953. In 1974, BU dedicated the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center. Today, Dr. Fuller’s portrait hangs with those of psychiatry’s founding fathers at APA headquarters in Washington, DC.
Adds Taylor Harden, R.N., Ph.D., acting NIA deputy director, and assistant to the director for special populations, “Solomon Carter Fuller was a selfless, brilliant, innovative man and an exemplar for anyone who is considering a career in research, psychiatry, or medicine.”