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Fuller, Solomon Carter(1872–1953) - Pathologist, psychiatrist, Chronology

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One of the nation’s first African American psychiatrists, Solomon Carter Fuller became well known for his work in neuropathology and psychiatry. Early in his career, he conducted research on degenerative diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease, leaving a legacy to American and African American psychiatry. He endured racism in his workplace and in the community where he lived and yet late in life was finally recognized for his outstanding work.

Chronology

1872

Born in Monrovia, Liberia on August 11

1893

Receives A.B. degree from Livingstone College, Salisbury, N.C.; studies medicine at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn

1894

Transfers to Boston University School of Medicine

1897

Receives M.D. degree from Boston University School of Medicine; begins internship at Westborough State Hospital for the Insane in Boston

1897–1919

Serves as director of the Clinical Society Commission of Massachusetts

1899

Named chief pathologist at the hospital; becomes parttime instructor at Boston University School of Medicine; becomes one of the first African American physicians to teach at a multiracial medical school in United States

1900

Establishes museum to display his research items

1904–05

Studies on leave of absence at Carnegie Laboratory in New York and the University of Munich

1909

Marries sculptor Meta Warrick

1911

Identifies one cause of Alzheimer’s disease and publishes findings

1919

Resigns post at Westborough State Hospital for the Insane

1921

Named associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine

1928–33

Functions as chair of the Department of Neurology but is never named chair

1933

Retires from post at Boston University School of Medicine

1943

Receives honorary Doctor of Science degree from Livingstone College

1944

Loses eyesight

1953

Dies in Framingham, Massachusetts on January 16

1971

Black Psychiatrists of America presents his portrait to American Psychiatric Association

1973

Memorialized in all-day conference at Boston University School of Medicine

The son of Solomon Carter Fuller Sr. and Anna Ursula James, Solomon Fuller Jr. was born in Monrovia, Liberia, on August 11, 1872. Anna James Fuller was the daughter of two doctors and church missionaries who returned to the United States from Africa. The father of Solomon Sr., John Lewis Fuller, was a coffee planter and Liberian government official—a high sheriff who specialized in land claims and the son of a repatriated former American, who started life in Norfolk, Virginia. John Fuller was an excellent cobbler with a sharp mind; thus, he was able to run his own business so well that he received part of the profits. He used the money to buy his freedom as well as that of his wife. By then the American Colonization Society made it possible for former slaves to settle in Liberia, if they wished. This option attracted John Lewis Fuller, so he sent his son Thomas to Liberia to investigate living conditions. The favorable report encouraged him to move his family to Monrovia in 1849. The experienced cobbler found that carpenters were in demand and thus changed his profession. This change provided a good living for him, his wife, and their two sons, Thomas and Solomon Jr. Fuller Sr.’s brother also served the government as treasurer of the Republic of Liberia. In June 1899, Solomon Jr. left Monrovia for the land that his paternal grandfather had left much earlier, the United States, at first studying at historically black Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, founded just ten years before. He experienced racism in the small town of Salisbury, something he had not known in the country of his birth. He survived, however, and concentrated on advancing his studies.

After receiving an A.B. degree from Livingstone in 1893, Fuller entered Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, to pursue a medical degree. When the American Psychological Association held its fiftieth annual meeting in May 1894, Fuller attended and heard S. Weir Mitchell give the keynote address. Impressed with his speech, Fuller soon made a decision that would affect his entire professional life. Miller noted that the field of psychiatry needed transformation and that nurses and doctors needed to be better prepared to serve the field. They needed to know the causes of mental illnesses, to work in more humane conditions, and to be rigid in observing the rules of science. They needed to follow rules regarding cleanliness and record-keeping in the laboratories. Fuller soon decided that he would follow Mitchell’s lead.

In 1894, Fuller transferred to Boston University School of Medicine, and he graduated in 1897 with the M.D. By then neurology was especially appealing to Fuller, a fact that attracted the attention of Edward P. Colby, one of his professors. Fuller had been disturbed by racism in the United States and knew that his grandfather had been a slave in Virginia early on, but he chose to remain in this country rather than return to Liberia. Colby introduced him to George Adams, superintendent of Westborough State Hospital for the Insane, located in west Boston. Colby also encouraged Adams to hire Fuller. Fuller accepted Adams’s offer for a six-month unpaid internship at the hospital as an assistant in the pathology laboratory. He worked under E. L. Mellis, examining brain cells of psychiatric patients who had died, as he sought a link between their mental problems and their anatomy. He did research on living patients as well, gathering blood samples as he searched for other clues to mental illness. In so doing, Fuller became a trailblazer, for he connected the work of the physician and that of the laboratory researcher in the area of mental illness.

Within the year his mentor, Dr. Mellis, left for a post at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Both were confident that Fuller could manage the laboratory well. He continued his research, tested his findings against what scientists knew up to that time, and documented all of his work. He also suggested areas in which additional research was needed—topics that fascinated him by then, such as paranoia, melancholia, and pernicious anemia. Fuller performed well, and two years after Mellis left, Fuller was promoted, becoming the chief pathologist for the hospital. This marked the beginning of a forty-five-year tenure there—as pathologist for twenty-two years and as consultant for twenty-three. Fuller soon built a fine reputation as a talented teacher in pathology, having accepted a part-time instructorship at Boston University School of Medicine in 1899. With this post he became one of the first African American physicians to teach at a multiracial medical school in the United States.

Fuller lived on the grounds of Westborough State Hospital, near Boston University, which allowed him long hours in the laboratory that he directed at the state hospital. While in the laboratory he photographed extremely thin sections of brain tissue from deceased psychiatric patients. His aim was to determine whether or not there were connections between mental disorder and organic disease; thus he cautiously used the camera, microscope, and microtome in his search. Later, he practiced medicine in Boston. On several occasions Fuller threatened to leave the laboratory post due to his low salary, only $25 monthly, while white physicians were paid $45 a month. With an increase in salary to $800 a year, he decided to stay on for another year. Another perk that he received was six weeks off a year.

In 1900, Fuller established a museum at the hospital where he could display what he regarded as a casual connection between diseases of the brain tissue and the behavior resulting from some mental illnesses. The photomicrograph (a way to photograph pathology slides though a microscope lens), which he invented, became acceptable in medical textbooks.

Fuller took a leave of absence from both of his posts. He did advanced study at the Carnegie Laboratory in New York and in 1904–05 studied under several wellknown German medical scientists at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Munich. He knew that, at that time, psychiatry was more advanced in Europe than elsewhere. In Munich, he studied with neuropsychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, whose 1883 book Compendium der Psychiatrie was the basic text for psychiatrists. According to Contemporary Black Biography , the book helped to influence the setting of scientific parameters in psychiatry. It also “displayed the first attempts to classify mental diseases into two general groups: dementia praecox—later called schizophrenia—and manic-depressive psychosis.” Kraepelin was also interested in objective tests that would facilitate the study of medications on mental disorders. As impressed with Kraepelin’s work as he was, Fuller was equally impressed with his laboratory, the precision with which it operated, his experiments and results, and the detailed documentation that was kept. Both men knew that psychiatry and any other medical discipline should follow rigorous standards. Fuller’s professional life was greatly enhanced by his year in Germany and ideas he learned from Kraepelin’s lectures.

While in Germany, Fuller also met Alois Alzheimer of Hamburg, the scientist who identified progressive dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. Although Alzheimer was a poor lecturer, Fuller found him a peerless scientific researcher. Fuller also met Paul Ehrlich, the 1908 Nobel Prize winner for his work in immunology.

In 1909, Fuller attended a series of lectures by Sigmund Freud given at Clark University in Worcester, a town not far from Framingham. Later, Fuller established a private psychotherapy practice in his home, where he worked with both blacks and whites. He also continued his research and teaching, particularly on neurology. Fuller’s German mentor, Alzheimer, had spurred his curiosity about the disease that bore his name, and Fuller included among his various writings several papers on the disease. In fact, in a 1911 publication, Fuller identified the ninth known cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Fuller left Westborough in 1919, when his teaching at Boston University finally brought him recognition. In that year, Fuller became associate professor of neuropathology. The title was revised in 1921, when he became associate professor of neurology. Fuller functioned as chair of the Department of Neurology from 1928 to 1933, yet was never actually given the chairmanship. He retired in 1933 but the retirement resulted from yet another act of racial discrimination. A white assistant professor was promoted to full professor, outranked Fuller, and was made the official department chair. Despite what appeared to be full acceptance of the popular, effective, and highly respected teacher, Fuller was never officially placed on the university’s payroll. He was paid for his services, however inadequate his compensation. He knew that race played a part in his stay at Boston University from his first encounter with the school until the last. As well, he believed that, given his training and experience, he would have gone farther had he been white.

Fuller never fully severed his ties with the hospital: he held a succession of part-time positions there. He was also visiting neurologist at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital and a consulting neurologist for Massachusetts General Hospital. After consulting with Framingham Marlboro Hospital, Fuller moved to the Allentown, Pennsylvania, State Hospital.

In addition to his work at various hospitals, from 1897 to 1919, Fuller was pathologist and director of the Clinical Society Commission of Massachusetts. For many years he edited the Westborough State Hospital Papers , where the work of the hospital staff was published. He was an accomplished scientific writer as well. Among his published papers were “Four Cases of Pernicious Anemia among Insane Subjects” ( New England Medical Gazette , 1901); “An Analysis of 100 Cases of Dementia Precox in Men” ( Proceedings of the Society of Neurological Psychiatry , 1908); “Involutional Melancholia” ( New England Society of Psychiatry , 1910); “An Analysis of 3,140 Admissions to Westborough State Hospital, with Reference to the Diagnosis of Involutional Melancholia” ( Proceedings of the Society of Neurological Psychiatry , 1911); and “A Study of the Miliary Plaques Found in Brains of the Aged” ( Proceedings of the American Medio-Psychological Association , 1911)./

While visiting Westborough State Hospital, Meta Vaux Warrick, an exceptional sculptor who had studied in Paris under Auguste Rodin, met Solomon Fuller Jr. The couple was married on February 9, 1909, and bought a house halfway between Boston and Framingham. Meta Fuller was diminutive, strikingly beautiful, with deep spiritual roots. She had sold her works at reputable galleries and was widely respected. She was also an important precursor of the Harlem Renaissance artists. Despite the prominence of both of the Fullers, the white community in which they lived rejected them. Local whites were unsuccessful in the petition to prevent the Fullers from buying their house. The Fullers persevered, ignored the racism that surrounded them, and enjoyed their comfortable home and the three sons they had.

Some writers suggest that Meta Fuller would have preferred life on the Continent, but she planned and lived her life according to social dictates for a married woman. Solomon Fuller supported her interests and became the subject of one of her most famous works. Meanwhile, Meta Fuller was impressed with her husband’s knowledge and equipment and thought that he might consider engaging in portrait photography. The couple then took up portrait photography as a hobby and received great satisfaction from it in their later years, until Fuller lost his sight. When blindness came, Meta Fuller gave up the studio where she had continued her fine sculpturing and tended to her husband’s needs.

Solomon Fuller had several other hobbies: he was a skillful gardener and bookbinder; and he became a leather crafter and tooled and decorated his own leather. He became a bibliophile as well, locating old, rare books found in second-hand stores and using his leather crafting and binding skills to restore the books to beautiful works that became collectors’ items. Both of the Fullers loved music as well; in fact, early on Meta Fuller played the guitar.

Fuller’s contribution to World War II came in the form of membership on the Advisory Medical Board No. 17. Fuller returned to his alma mater, Livingstone College, in 1943, the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation from the college. The Livingstone occasion also marked the dedication of the Price Memorial Building for science laboratories; the building honored J. C. Price (1854–93), gifted orator, temperance leader, minister, and early president of the college. During the college’s celebration, Fuller was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Science.

While at the college, Fuller also engaged in a lengthy radio interview in which he discussed the impact of World War II on the mental and nervous energies of those engaged in war and on civilians. Quoted in the Journal of the National Medical Association , Fuller said the federal government was taking precautions to ensure that men who suffered mental disorders saw no combat and were discharged instead. Some of the men with such disorders could be rehabilitated, he thought, due to the advances in psychiatry. After citing an example of the British population that had been heavily bombed during World War II, Fuller noted that the same could happen in American cities. If that occurred, “a certain mental strain would be the inevitable result.” He thought that “the process of adjustment to such a situation would strengthen the resistance of the public to deterioration in mental health and would eventuate a stronger determination to protect their lived ones and their homeland.”

Fuller belonged to several professional organizations: the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, New York Psychiatric Society, American Psychiatric Society, American Medical Association, the Boston Society for Psychiatry and Neurology, Massachusetts Medical Society, the New England Medical Society, and the New England Psychiatric Association.

After Fuller died, the Boston Society for Psychiatry and Neurology published a number of resolutions honoring Fuller in the New England Journal of Medicine . In the 1970s Fuller was well recognized for his contribution to American psychiatry as well as to black psychiatrists who practiced in this country. In May 1971the Black Psychiatrists of America presented his portrait to the American Psychiatric Association, located in Washington, D.C. His recognitions continued, and in October 1973 the Boston University School of Medicine celebrated its centennial year and included in the celebration an all-day conference to memorialize Fuller. At that time as well, Meta Fuller presented her sculpture of his bust to the library of his alma mater, Livingstone College. The Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston is named in his honor.

Virginia Sammons, in Blacks in Science and Medicine , wrote that Fuller was acknowledged as America’s first black psychiatrist. Toward the end of his life a colleague, James B. Ayer, visited him and, according to the Journal of the Negro Medical Association , described meeting him at his home: “though blind, his memory was excellent, his speech flawless, his interests alive. He knew he had not long to live, but accepted the fact in his usual philosophical manner, like the perfect gentleman he was.”

Solomon Fuller suffered from diabetes, which began to take its toll on him soon after he retired from Boston University and led to his blindness in 1944, forcing him to sever his long association with Westborough State Hospital. Yet he continued to see patients in his private practice from time to time, practically until he died in Framingham of natural causes on January 16, 1953. His wife Meta and three sons survived him. Meta Warrick Fuller died on March 13, 1968.

Fuller, Thomas O.(1867–1942) - Senator, educator, entrepreneur, Achieves Academic and Divinity Degrees, Elected to North Carolina State Senate [next] [back] Fuller, Charles(1939–) - Playwright, screenwriter, Black Theater, Fulfilling the Dream, Chronology

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