For years, the degenerative brain illness that came to be known as Alzheimer’s Disease was barely understood. Doctors struggled to determine the causes, why it affected the elderly, and most importantly, how it could be treated. In 1904 noted German psychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer invited five foreign doctors to be his graduate research assistants at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital in Munich. One of them was an American: Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller.
Fuller, born in Liberia in 1872, was the grandson of an American slave who had purchased his freedom and emigrated to Africa. Fuller was a graduate of Boston University Medical School and eventually worked as a pathologist at Westborough State Hospital for the Insane, becoming the nation’s first black psychiatrist.
Fuller arrived in Germany thirsting for medical training he felt he could not receive in the U.S. But biographies written about him tell little of his activities there, except that a cash-strapped Alzheimer relied on his students to carry out much of his lab work, thereby making hefty contributions to research on brain disorders.
Alzheimer had already studied a 51-year-old patient who exhibited symptoms of the mysterious disease. In 1907, Fuller examined the brain tissues of cadavers who had a variety of mental disorders and found plaques called amyloids in them. After more research, he found one that matched what Alzheimer had originally described. He wrote that the cases supported Alzheimer’s discovery of a particular form of dementia and that it was not due to senility, but rather an actual disease. The research proved to be a watershed in the study of the disorder and Fuller’s name was forever linked with modern understanding of the ailment.
In 1919, Fuller left Westborough for Boston University Medical School to teach pathology and worked there for 34 years until blindness caused by diabetes forced him to retire. Despite his condition, he practiced privately from his Boston home until he succumbed to his illness in 1953.
In 1974, in dedication to Fuller’s work in neuropathology, Boston University opened the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center, which provides psychiatric outpatient services.
“Today there are not that many black psychiatrists who are professors in medical schools,” says Dr. Annelle Primm, director of the American Psychiatric Association’s Office of Minority and National Affairs. “When you put his accomplishments in that context, he was way ahead of his time.”