Born May 30, 1912, in New York, NY; died December 29, 2004, in Rockville, MD. Biochemist. American biochemist Julius Axelrod conducted important research in brain chemistry that spurred the development of an entirely new class of drugs. Prozac and Paxil, the brand names of more-effective depression-treating drugs that came onto the market in the late 1980s and early '90s, were the direct result of Axelrod's discoveries about certain hormones and their actions in the part of the brain that regulates moods. For this work, he was a co-recipient of the 1970 Nobel Prize.
Axelrod was born in 1912, six years after his Polish-born parents came to America and settled on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He planned to become a doctor, and graduated from Seward Park High School on Grand Street just as the Great Depression was beginning. After one year at New York University, he transferred to the City College of New York, which offered free tuition to all city residents. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1933, he was rejected by the admissions boards of several medical schools, possibly because he was Jewish; it was an era when most medical schools accepted only a limited number of Jewish enrollees every year. Instead he took a job at a lab at the New York University Medical School, and in 1935 was hired by the New York City Department of Health to test vitamin-fortified foods. There, in 1938, Axelrod lost an eye in a laboratory accident when a bottle of ammonia exploded. For the remainder of his life he wore eyeglasses with a darkened lens over the left side.
Though his impaired vision made Axelrod ineligible to serve in the U.S. military during World War II, it did not deter his scientific ambitions in the least. He worked full time, but took night classes and earned a master's degree in chemistry from New York University. His thesis on cancer tissue enzymes impressed Dr. Bernard Brodie, who would become an important mentor to him. In 1945 Axelrod was invited to join Brodie in his research lab at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on New York City's Roosevelt Island. When Brodie moved to the National Heart Institute, part of the federally funded National Institutes of Health (NIH), in 1949, the junior scientist followed him there. Urged by his colleagues, Axelrod began work on his doctorate, and earned it in 1955, when he was in his early 40s, from George Washington University. That same year he was invited to establish a pharmacology section at the NIH's Laboratory of Clinical Science within the National Institute of Mental Health.
Some of Axelrod's earliest research work dealt with pain-relieving medications, specifically the discovery of acetaminophen as a headache reliever. The drug was later made available without a prescription under the brand name Tylenol. Around 1957, he began the work that would later earn him the Nobel Prize. His research involved catecholamines, the hormone chemicals in the brain that are stored in nerve endings. They serve as neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers between nerve cells. Axel-rod looked at noradrenaline, one of these catechola-mine neurotransmitters. The common scientific perception was that noradrenaline was dissolved by enzymes once it was no longer active, but Axelrod's work showed that noradrenaline was instead recycled, or reuptaken, by the nerve cells. His discovery led to the engineering of a new type of drugs that worked to block that reuptake process, particularly for serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. These new anti-depressant medications, known as "selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors" (SSRIs), first became available in 1987 with the introduction of Prozac by prescription. Prozac and its SSRI siblings, including Zoloft and Paxil, began to be used by millions and would make a profound difference in the treatment of depression and substance abuse.
For his discovery, Axelrod shared the 1970 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with two other scientists also working in the field, Sir Bernard Katz, an Australian at University College of London, and Ulf von Euler of Sweden's Karlinska Institute. Axelrod also did important early work on melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that regulates sleep cycles. He officially retired in 1984, but still came into the lab three times a week. In 1996 he was named an emeritus scientist at the NIH. He suffered from heart trouble in his later years, and died in his sleep at the age of 92 on December 29, 2004, at his home in Rockville, Maryland. He was married to Sally Taub, an elementary-school teacher, in 1938, but widowed in 1992. He is survived by two sons and three grandchildren. Respected by his colleagues and popular with his graduate assistants, Axelrod was known for his modesty. He learned of his Nobel Prize win from his dentist, after forgetting to listen to the radio that morning, and when President Richard M. Nixon made a congratulatory telephone call, Axelrod used the opportunity to challenge the Nixon Administration's planned budgetary revisions in scientific funding, which had caused some consternation at the NIH. The Nobel prizewinner later said that his achievements would have been impossible for the generation of scientists who followed him, when earning a doctorate at the age of 41 would put one far behind in the professional race. "There's not room in the field of research for people like me," he asserted, according to Jon Thurber's Los Angeles Times obituary, quoting an earlier interview, "who matured slowly." Sources: Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2004, sec. 3, p. 8; Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005, p. B14; New York Times, December 31, 2004, p. A22; Times (London), January 4, 2005, p. 46.
— Carol Brennan