Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller: Nation’s first black psychiatrist

Anthony W. Neal | 2/20/2013, 6:27 a.m.
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller,...

Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, the nation’s first black psychiatrist, endured employment discrimination to make significant contributions to Alzheimer’s disease research and the development of American psychiatry. He was born in Monrovia, Liberia on Aug. 11, 1872. His grandfather, John Lewis Fuller, a slave and skilled shoemaker from Petersburg, Va., toiled, saved his money and purchased both his freedom and that of his companion, Nancy — a white indentured servant. The couple had eight children. Seeking greater employment opportunities, they moved to Norfolk, Va., but by 1847, Nancy had passed away.

Racial persecution and deteriorating social and economic conditions in the antebellum South induced John Fuller to flee the United States for Africa, along with thousands of other free black people desiring better lives for themselves and their families. With financial help from the American Colonization Society — founded in 1816 to assist free blacks in emigrating from America to Africa — Fuller’s grandfather, accompanied by his youngest son, Solomon, his daughter, Rebecca, and her family, set sail on Nov. 27, 1852 for Liberia, where they helped to establish a settlement of African Americans.

Solomon C. Fuller Sr., John Fuller’s son, became a large landowner, coffee planter and Liberian government official. He married Liberian-born Anna Ursula James, the daughter of medical missionaries, and they moved into a house on Ashmand St. in Monrovia, where Solomon Jr. was born.

Anna, young Solomon’s mother, home-schooled him until the age of 10 and taught him Latin. Then he enrolled in a private school run by Episcopalian missionaries. At 12 years old, he left home to attend the College Preparatory School in Monrovia, where he continued to study Latin. Distinguishing himself as an exemplary student, Solomon was admitted to the sub-freshman class of Liberia College at age 16. In March 1889, however, halfway through his freshman year, his father died. Three months later, at the age of 17, Solomon left Liberia for the United States and, in the fall of 1889, enrolled at Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. Formerly the Zion Wesley Institute, Livingstone College was established for black students in 1879 by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

By working as a typesetter in the Livingston College Press printing office, Fuller was able to pay his college expenses. He graduated in May 1893, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree with honors. Then he set out for Brooklyn, N.Y. in March 1894 to attend Long Island College Hospital. He paid his tuition by serving as a waiter in a boarding house. Later that year, in the fall, Fuller transferred to Boston University School of Medicine. While there, he worked for $4 a week as an elevator operator in a large apartment building on Commonwealth Avenue. He obtained his medical degree in the spring of 1897.

Following Fuller’s graduation from medical school, his neurology professor, Dr. Edward P. Colby, impressed with his academic ability, arranged for him to meet with Dr. George Adams. Adams was the superintendent of the Westborough Insane Hospital (later known as the Westborough State Hospital) — a state facility located 35 miles west of Boston, established on June 3, 1884 “for the care and treatment of the insane, upon the principles of medicine known as homeopathic.” Adams immediately hired Fuller as an intern in the hospital’s pathology laboratory.