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Feature: Solomon Carter Fuller

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

Article By Sucharita Desu

February is Black History Month. It is a month to celebrate and honour the legacy, history, and achievements of Black people across the world. In recognition of his contributions to neuroscience, we are featuring Solomon Carter Fuller, a neuropsychiatrist, researcher, professor, and pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease research.

Solomon Carter Fuller was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1872. His grandparents were American slaves that had purchased their freedom and returned to Liberia under the American Colonization Fund. Inspired by his medical missionary grandparents, Dr. Fuller came to the United States in 1889 to study medicine. He received his medical degree from the Boston University School of Medicine. He also completed a two-year internship at Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts and worked with Professor Edward Dunham at Belleview Medical College in New York. Following that, Dr. Fuller started to work as a hospital pathologist and instructor of pathology at Boston University, performing autopsies to collect and analyze tissue from diseased mental patients.

In 1904, to improve his lab and diagnostic skills, Dr. Fuller continued his studies in Germany. There, he worked alongside Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who was studying presenile dementia. In addition, he worked as a neuropathologist at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Munich.

His interest and work in neuropathology and dementia grew after returning to Westborough Hospital in 1905. During this time, he founded and edited the Westborough State Hospital Papers, a journal that published local research activities. Furthermore, in 1907, Dr. Fuller published a case series describing neuropathological features found in autopsies of patients diagnosed with varying conditions, from types of dementia to chronic alcoholism. In this publication, he reported abnormal neuronal appearances and the presence of neurofibrils in cases related to dementia. He also mentioned those who influenced his career, such as Dr. Alzheimer and Dr. Emil Kraepelin, and their input in dementia research.

When Dr. Alzheimer released his observations stating arteriosclerosis caused plaque formation in 1911, Dr. Fuller disagreed with him and questioned the importance of plaques and neurofibrillary pathology as hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr.Fuller released his final publication in 1912, the first comprehensive review of Alzheimer’s disease. This publication had two parts, reviewing 11 known cases of the disease. It also had a translated version of Dr. Alzheimer’s case of Auguste Deter, the first woman diagnosed with a degenerative disease. Some cases belonged to Dr. Fuller’s patients, such as a case about a 56-year-old man with a two-year history of memory impairment, receptive dysphasia, and apraxia. His autopsy revealed regional cerebral atrophies, arteriosclerosis, extensive plaque presence, and abnormal accumulations of a protein called tau inside neurons (neurofibrillary tangles). While it is an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Dr. Fuller and his colleagues recognized that not all cases exhibited intracellular neurofibrils, which led to the conclusion that many variations of the disease belong to the larger category of senile dementia.

In addition to all these, Dr. Fuller also published documents related to pernicious anemia, the effects of belladonna on animal tissue, melancholia, and manic-depressive insanity.

In 1919, he returned to Boston University as an associate professor of neuropathology and neurology. From 1928 to 1933, he acted as the chair of the Department of Neurology before retiring. Later, he recruited and trained Black psychiatrists at Tuskegee Veterans Hospital. He also trained medical staff to diagnose the side effects of syphilis to ensure Black war veterans were not misdiagnosed or discharged and denied military benefits. In 1943, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science degree by Livingstone College. By 1944, Solomon Carter Fuller had lost his eyesight due to his worsening diabetes. At the age of 81, he passed away because of his diabetes and gastrointestinal malignancy.

Throughout his time, Solomon Carter Fuller was subject to a lot of racial discrimination. While working at Boston University, he was paid less than his fellow white professors. In addition, he was never formally recognized on the University’s payroll. From 1928 to 1933, although he was the chair, he was never officially given the title. Instead, he had to retire when a younger white professor was promoted, taking over Dr. Fuller’s role. In addition, his white neighbours had unsuccessfully petitioned to remove him and his family from their home in Massachusetts. Although Dr. Fuller believed that he could have gone further with discoveries and knowledge if it were not for the colour of his skin, he never let his limitations stop him from doing his work to the best of his ability.

Today, his achievements are recognized through various things. His portrait hangs at the American Psychiatric Association headquarters, recognizing him as the first Black psychiatrist. Boston University celebrated his contributions through a conference in 1973. In 1974, the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center was established, providing outpatient psychiatric services, and facilitating research and education. Finally, there is an award named after Dr. Fuller, the Solomon Carter Fuller Award, which is given to Black pioneers who have significantly improved the quality of life for Black people.

While he was underrecognized, his research and teachings serve as an example to everyone. Despite the progression of time, racial discrimination against coloured medical and science professionals is still seen today. Plus, there are still people of colour who do not get access to the same medical care as everyone else. Just like Dr. Fuller, Black people around the world strive to overcome their limitations and work towards achieving equity.

Hence, it is our responsibility to keep learning and acknowledging their efforts, as well as helping them. To continue your research into Solomon Carter Fuller, and inspire you to learn about other pioneers as well, check out these links:

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