When African-born psychiatrist Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller was studying the brains of persons with dementia in Dr. Alois Alzheimer’s laboratory in 1904, there was no way for him to know that, a little more than a century later, dementia would be affecting African Americans at twice the rate of White Americans.
Recognized now as the first Black psychiatrist in America, Dr. Fuller was born in Liberia in 1872. His paternal grandparents were enslaved persons from Virginia who purchased their freedom and emigrated to Liberia. His maternal grandparents were medical missionaries. Dr. Fuller went to the US for his BA at Livingstone College in North Carolina and finished his medical education at Boston University in 1897.
During his internship at the Boston-area Westborough State Hospital for the Insane, Dr. Fuller became a skilled pathologist, taking post-mortem tissue samples and making microscopic slides of the brains of deceased patients. To advance his knowledge, he moved to the lab of Professor Edward Dunham at the Bellview Hospital Medical College in New York City. Dunham encouraged Dr. Fuller to consider advanced study in Europe. He applied to Dr. Alzheimer’s lab in Munich, Germany, and was the only American applicant accepted to the post.
A year later Dr. Fuller returned to Westborough State Hospital to resume his role as a neuropathologist and to continue his research into dementia. He built a new lab, developed a clinical practice, and founded a journal to report the hospital staff’s research. Dr. Fuller published a comprehensive paper in 1907 that noted the accumulation of plaques and changes in neurofibrils associated with some dementia cases. That same year Dr. Alzheimer published his famous study of “Auguste D,” a patient with what today would be called “young onset dementia.” In his paper, Alzheimer also highlighted the plaques and tangled neurofibrils that became the core of dementia research in subsequent decades.
Dr. Fuller’s expertise and work were rarely acknowledged in his lifetime. While paid to teach at the Boston University Medical School, he was never officially recognized as a faculty member. He served as head of the Department of Neurology but was never given the official title. Dr. Fuller resigned in 1933 when a young White assistant professor was promoted to full professor and formally given the post. He continued his psychiatry practice and mentorship role until his death at age 81 in 1953.
After his death Dr. Fuller was recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist. Boston University held a one-day tribute in 1973 and opened its Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in 1974.
To honor Dr. Fuller, increase awareness of dementia in the African American community, and encourage Black participation in dementia research, the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center co-host the annual Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Brain Health Event in Madison. Contact diversity outreach specialist Barbara McKinney (Barbara.firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information on this event.
We trust that Dr. Fuller would encourage African American participation in brain research generally and dementia research in particular. As a recent journal article (Lennon et al., 2021) noted, “Substantial gaps in the scientific literature remain regarding the impact of racial/ethnic factors on ADRD [Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias] due in part to underrepresentation of non-White participants in population-based cohort studies…” This lack of representation “only serves to magnify bias and inequity within the healthcare system.”
Lennon, J. C., Aita, S. L., Bene, V. A. D., Rhoads, T., Resch, Z. J., Eloi, J. M., and Walker, K. A. (2021). Black and White individuals differ in dementia prevalence, risk factors, and symptomatic presentation. Alzheimers Dement. 2021 Dec 2. DOI: 10.1002/alz.12509. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34854531.