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

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

After passing his Massachusetts medical board examinations, Fuller received his license to practice medicine in July 1898. He spent most of his time performing unpleasant work — autopsies — the purpose of which was to collect and analyze tissue sections from deceased mental patients. Adept at his job, he was promoted to pathologist in 1899. The hospital paid him a salary of $25 a month, while paying a more recently hired white physician twice that amount. Fuller recalled, “I was so furious I was about ready to throw in the sponge, but Dr. Adams advised me not to do that.” The doctor decided to stay on as pathologist.   

That same year, 1899, he was appointed instructor of pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine, becoming one of the first African Americans to hold a post at a medical school other than Howard and Meharry. Sadly, though, his alma mater discriminated against him in compensation as well; the medical school paid him a modest salary of $24 a month for his teaching, compared to $28 a month for other instructors.

Despite the fact that turn-of-the-century racism restricted his pay, Fuller was not one to agitate for equal rights. He took great pride in his work and, to wage war against that racism, wielded the weapon of academic excellence in medical research. He focused that research on manic-depressive psychosis, senility, schizophrenia and hereditary brain disease.    

Dr. Fuller was best known for two important accomplishments: his groundbreaking research on Alzheimer’s disease — a degenerative neurological disorder in which memory, judgment and the ability to reason progressively deteriorate — and his contributions to the medical literature in the field of psychiatry. He published papers in several medical journals, presenting his first, “The report of four cases of pernicious anemia in insane subjects with a consideration of the nervous sequelae of the disease,” on April 10, 1901 at the Massachusetts Homeopathic Medical Society’s 61st  annual meeting, held at Boston’s Pilgrim Hall. The neuropathologist published the paper in the New England Medical Gazette.         

In the winter of 1900, Fuller took a leave of absence from Westborough Insane Hospital to pursue advanced study at the Carnegie Laboratory in New York, and from November 1904 to August 1905, he performed further research in Germany at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Munich, studying under professors Emil Kraepelin and Alois Alzheimer. In an effort to improve his skills in analyzing brain tissue and its relation to mental illness, he took courses in pathology. Fuller’s biographer, Mary Kaplan, in her book, Solomon Carter Fuller: Where My Caravan Has Rested, noted that the doctor’s experience in Germany also “gave him proficiency in German and knowledge of psychiatry,” setting “him apart from his American contemporaries.”  

In the spring of 1916, Fuller participated in a series of free weekly public health talks under the auspices of the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital (now known as Boston University Medical Center). He delivered a lecture titled “The brain” at the Evans Memorial Department of Clinical Research, located at 80 East Concord St. in the South End.