In a press release this morning, it was reported that an experimental drug was shown to reduce the cognitive decline in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. While the reduction was a modest 27%, this is the first time a drug has shown impact in the trajectory of the illness.
This exciting news got us thinking about the disease, and it’s history. Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent form of dementia, is named after the German doctor Alois Alzheimer. The history of the disease, however, features a man whose name few will recognize: Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, a neurologist and the first U.S. psychiatrist of African descent.
Fuller was born in the Liberian capital of Monrovia in 1872. His paternal grandfather was enslaved in the United States, but then purchased his freedom and immigrated to Liberia. His maternal grandparents were medical missionaries who served in Liberia.
In 1889, Fuller moved to the U.S. and enrolled at Livingstone College in North Carolina. He went on to receive his MD from Boston University in 1897. Seven years later in 1904, Fuller was one of only five foreign research assistants selected by Dr. Alois Alzheimer to join him in his laboratory at Munich, Germany. While there, Fuller helped with research on physically observable abnormalities in the brains of victims of the disease that a few years later would become known as Alzheimer’s.
In 1905, Fuller returned to the U.S., where he resumed his work as a pathologist with a special focus on Alzheimer’s disease. Using his fluency in the German language, he also published the first English-language translation of most of Alzheimer’s findings. In his work, Fuller performed numerous autopsies on deceased patients, which enabled him to observe the neurofibrillary tangles and miliary plaques of his dementia patients, a whole five months before Dr. Alzheimer did. This discovery identified a physically observable basis for this disease, which helped to confirm that dementia and the condition known as Alzheimer’s was not the result of insanity but rather a physical disease of the brain. Fuller also went on to publish the first comprehensive review of the disease.
In addition to his work on Alzheimer’s disease, Fuller also worked to address the racial disparities in mental health care by training young Black psychiatrists. However, as a professor at Boston University he was paid significantly less than his White colleagues. And despite carrying out the duties of a professor and the head of the neurology department, he never received the corresponding titles. Sadly, he once remarked, “With the sort of work that I have done, I might have gone farther and reached a higher plane had it not been for the color of my skin.”
Finally, in 1933 Fuller retired from Boston University after a White junior colleague was promoted over him to become the official head of the neurology department. Despite those career setbacks, he never stopped serving patients, until diabetes eventually robbed him of his eyesight years later.
In 1974, about 20 years after his death, the Black Psychiatrists of America established the Solomon Carter Fuller Program for aspiring Black psychiatrists. That same year the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston was established. The American Psychiatric Association presents the annual Solomon Carter Fuller Award to an individual who has done pioneering work to improve the lives of Black people.
His legacy lives on through these awards, programs, and health center, but perhaps his most lasting impact will be his inspiring example of tirelessly working to find new answers to hard questions, and influence the lives of patients and their families suffering from Alzheimer’s.