From Grandson of a Slave to Pioneering Brain Doctor

From Grandson of a Slave to Pioneering Brain Doctor

The year was 1909. The place was Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Dr Granville Stanley Hall, first president of the university and of the American Psychological Association (APA), had organized a conference with an impressive list of attendees: psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, philosopher William James, anthropologist Franz Uri Boas, physicist Ernest Rutherford. It was a brainy crowd; apropos, given that the topic of the day’s lecture was the human brain.

Also in attendance was Solomon Carter Fuller, an African American immigrant from Liberia, who, despite earning himself a respected reputation after training as a psychiatrist in Europe, had a notably more arduous path to career success — and to the APA conference in Worcester — than many of his colleagues.

During his internship and residency years he had been assigned a disproportionate number of autopsies; necessary for the hospital but not considered directly valuable to clinical education in his era. Sadly, this was how many clinicians of color were treated at the time, regardless of their education and talents.

A young Solomon Carter Fuller

Though Fuller’s autopsy work may have kept him from a more standard clinical education — and a more typical career of caring for patients — his experience in the pathology lab as a young doctor would later be key to his success in studying disorders of the brain, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. His depth of skill and knowledge in neuropathology would ultimately earn him a key role in the history of the field.

Coming to America

Fuller was born in Monrovia, Liberia, on August 11, 1872. His mother, Anna Ursala James, was the daughter of two physicians who worked as medical missionaries. Fuller’s father, also named Solomon Fuller, was a coffee planter and government official.

Earning an MD was no assurance that a black man would obtain an internship. Ironically, this challenge would be a factor leading Fuller to study the brain.

The American Colonization Society, whose membership at one point included Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, founded Liberia in 1822 on the belief that African Americans could achieve more freedom and prosperity as an organized, modern nation in Africa than living among white Americans. Fuller’s father and grandfather John Lewis Fuller, a liberated slave, emigrated to Liberia from Virginia in 1852. By the time of young Solomon’s birth, the Fuller family had risen to a leadership role in Liberia. Fuller’s family supported his education and eventually sent him to study in the United States.

Fuller’s American education began at Livingstone College, which had been founded for black students in Salisbury, North Carolina. Fuller then went on to study medicine at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn and then at Boston University, where he was awarded his MD in 1897. At the time, Boston University was one of the only medical schools to admit not only men of color, but also women.

Earning an MD was no assurance that that a black man would obtain an internship. Ironically, this challenge would be a factor leading Fuller to study the brain. In medical school, Fuller’s academic performance had impressed neurology professor Dr Edward P. Colby, who helped Fuller get an internship at the Westborough Insane Hospital, later called Westborough State Hospital, not far from Boston.

On account of his race, Fuller was disproportionately assigned less clinical work and more duty in the hospital’s pathology laboratory, where, among other duties, he supported research on deceased mental patients. Fuller performed numerous autopsies, a fairly uncommon procedure at the time. This allowed him to delve much more deeply into the gross and microscopic anatomy

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