Memoir

Julius Axelrod

National Institutes of Health

May 30, 1912 - December 29, 2004


Election Year: 1971
Scientific Discipline: Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
Membership Type: Member

Julius Axelrod was one of the great molecular pharmacologists of the modern era of drug research. Among his numerous accomplishments were studies of the metabolism of drugs (such as nonaspirin analgesics), which had consequent influences on the drug market (such as the introduction and ubiquity of acetaminophen); his role in discoveries “concerning the humoral transmitters in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release, and inactivation” (for which he shared the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine); his analysis of the inhibition of the brain’s amine uptake, which to this day remains the central action mechanism of tricyclic antidepressants; and his major role in showing that melatonin is the active principle of the pineal gland, which mediates organismic influences of light (a discovery that presaged a vast body of work establishing melatonin as a regulator of sleep and circadian rhythms.)

Yet in part because Axelrod spent a large portion of his professional life as a technician without a PhD, simplicity and absence of pomp epitomized his life and scientific style. His humility is best conveyed by his own statement: “I soon learned that it did not require a great brain to do original research. One must be highly motivated, exercise good judgment, [and] have intelligence, imagination, determination, and a little luck.”

Axelrod received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the City College of New York in 1933 and went to work as a technician at a New York University laboratory. In 1935 he obtained a position at the Laboratory of Industrial Hygiene, a nonprofit unit set up by the New York City Department of Health. He remained employed by that laboratory from 1935 to 1946, during which time he enrolled in night courses at New York University, earning his master’s degree in 1942. Axelrod then worked at the Goldwater Memorial Hospital, a New York University division, from 1946 to 1949, whereupon he joined the National Heart Institute (NHI), a component of the National Institutes of Health. During his tenure at the NHI Axelrod received, in 1955, his PhD from George Washington University, and shortly thereafter he moved to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he headed the Laboratory of Clinical Science’s Section on Pharmacology. Axelrod continued to work at the NIMH until his death in 2004.

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