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Julius Axelrod

Published: 02 Jun 2016 in Pharmacology Hall of Fame

Elected in 2016

Born on 30 May 1912 in New York City, New York, USA
Died on 29 December 2004 in Rockville, Maryland, USA

Achievements

  • Axelrod shared the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the actions of neurotransmitters in regulating the metabolism of the nervous system ("discoveries concerning the humoral transmitters in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation"). These discoveries had a profound impact on the development of improved antidepressant drugs.
  • He had originally wanted to become a medical doctor, but was rejected from every medical school to which he applied. Instead, he worked as a laboratory assistant and then at the Department of Health, while he studied for his BSc in biology from City College of New York (graduating in 1933) and MSc in chemistry (graduating in 1941).
  • In 1946, he took a position working for Bernard Brodie at the Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island to research the chemistry of analgesic medications, which laid the foundation for Alexrod’s lifelong enthusiasm for pharmacology.
  • In 1954, he decided to study full-time (for the first time) for a PhD in pharmacology at George Washington University in Washington DC, which he completed in 1955 at the age of 42.
  • In 1955, he established a section on pharmacology in Edward Evart’s laboratory of clinical science at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). There he began his most famous research project, which focused on the activity of neurotransmitter hormones.
  • His work in the 1970s enabled researchers to develop a new class of antidepressant medicines, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
  • He was awarded the Gairdner Award in 1967 and named Scientist Emeritus of the NIH in 1996.

Personal life

  • Of his own life, Axelrod said, “F. Scott Fitzgerald once stated that there are no second acts in American lives. After a mediocre first act, my second act was a smash. So far the third act has not been so bad.”
  • He lost his left eye in a laboratory accident, which is why he’s frequently pictured with glasses with one dark lens.
  • After receiving the Nobel Prize, he used his visibility to advocate on behalf of science across a range of political issues.