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Julius Axelrod Papers 1910-2004 (bulk 1946-1999)
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Biographical Note

Julius (Julie) Axelrod (1912-2004) was born May 20, 1912, on the lower east side of Manhattan in New York City, the son of Polish immigrants Isadore and Molly Axelrod. Julius' father supported the family as a basketmaker. Axelrod attended Seward Park High School, where he quickly developed an interest in history, literature, and science, and set his sights on medical school. In 1929, Axelrod enrolled in New York City University (NYU). After one year, he transferred to the tuition-free City College of New York (CCNY), which Axelrod later described as a "proletarian Harvard." Axelrod graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1933. He applied to several medical schools, but was not admitted. Reflecting on these rejections, he told a newspaper reporter in 1970 that "It was hard in those days for Jews to get into medical school. I wasn't that good a student, but if my name was Bigelow I probably would have gotten in."

Axelrod also found it difficult to find work in his field, especially in the middle of the Depression. After a brief stint as a laboratory technician at the Harriman Research Laboratory at NYU Medical School, Axelrod found a position in 1935 testing vitamin supplements added to food, particularly milk, for the New York City Department of Health's Laboratory of Industrial Hygiene. Axelrod remained in this position until 1946. During this period, he lost his left eye in a laboratory accident. In 1938, Axelrod married Sally Taub, an elementary school teacher. Over the next decade, the couple had two sons, Paul and Alfred. While working for the Department of Health, Axelrod took night classes at NYU and earned his Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1941 with a thesis on the chemical breakdown of enzymes in cancerous tumor tissues.

In 1946, Axelrod began conducting research on the chemistry of analgesic (pain-relieving) medications with Bernard "Steve" Brodie at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island. He continued to work with Brodie, whom he considered to be his mentor, for the next eight years. Their research together laid the foundation for Axelrod's lifelong enthusiasm for pharmacological science. In 1949, Axelrod accepted a position as a research chemist at the National Heart Institute (NHI), a part of the rapidly expanding National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. From 1949 to 1955, he pursued many new projects at the NHI that built upon his previous work.

Although Axelrod clearly possessed the requisite skill and scientific expertise to carry out his own research, he knew that without a Ph.D. his opportunities for career advancement were limited. In 1954, Axelrod took a leave of absence from the NIH to attend The George Washington University, where his advisor, George Mandel, permitted him to submit some of his recent NIH laboratory work as the basis for his doctoral dissertation. Now in his early 40's, Axelrod graduated from GWU in 1955 with a Ph.D. in pharmacology after completing his thesis, "The Fate of Phenylisopropylamines."

In 1954, Axelrod was invited to establish a Section on Pharmacology in Edward Evarts's Laboratory of Clinic Science at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In 1957, he began his most famous research project, which focused on the activity of neurotransmitter hormones. Axelrod's work enabled researchers during the 1970s to develop a new class of antidepressant medications, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Some commonly known SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa. Over the next thirty years until his retirement in 1984, he continued to work on a wide array of research projects in pharmacological science.

In 1970, Axelrod, along with Sir Bernard Katz of University College London and Ulf von Euler of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for "discoveries concerning the humoral transmitters in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation." Axelrod remained an active researcher, distinguished lecturer, and public scientist throughout the 1970s, garnering numerous honorary degrees and professional awards. In 1984, at the age of 72, he formally retired from the NIMH. In 1996, he was named Scientist Emeritus of the National Institutes of Health.

Brief Chronology

1912 May 30Born, New York City; son of Isadore Axelrod, a basketmaker, and Molly Leichtling Axelrod
1929Enrolls at New York University
1930Transfers to City College of New York; studies history, philosophy, literature and biology
1933Receives Bachelor of Science degree in biology, CCNY
1933-1935Laboratory assistant in Harriman Laboratory, NYU Medical School
1935-1946Chemist, Laboratory of Industrial Hygiene, NYC Dept. of Health
1938Marries Sally Taub; 2 children
1941Receives Master of Science degree in chemistry, NYU, after taking post-graduate night courses
1946-1949Research associate with Bernard Brodie at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, Welfare Island, NY
1949-1955Continues work with Brodie at National Institutes of Health
1949-1950Associate chemist, Section on Clinical Pharmacology, NIH
1950-1953Chemist, NIH
1953-1955Senior chemist, NIH
1955Completes doctoral thesis in pharmacology, George Washington University, under George Mandel, The Fate of Phenylisopropylamines"
1954-1984Chief, Section on Pharmacology, Laboratory of Clinical Science, NIH
1958-1961Discovers reuptake action in neurotransmitter norepinephrine
1960-1965Studies pineal gland; develops "melatonin hypothesis"
1967Receives Gairdner Foundation International Award
1970Shares Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine with Sir Bernard Katz and Ulf von Euler
1970Member, Psychopharmacology Study Section, NIH
1984Retires from NIH; continues as Guest Researcher at NIMH, Laboratory of Cell Biology
1987Julius Axelrod Distinguished Lecturer in Neuroscience established at CCNY by Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation
1992 Sep. 18One Day Scientific Symposium and 80th Birthday Celebration in Honor of Julie Axelrod
1996Named Scientist Emeritus of NIH

Selected Awards

  • Akademie der Wissenschaft der DDR, foreign member
  • Claude Bernard Medal/Professorship, University of Montreal
  • Bristol-Myers Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research
  • Stanley R. Dean Research Award, American College of Psychiatrists and the Foundation for Behavioral Sciences
  • Distinguished Achievement Award, George Washington University
  • Distinguished Research Award, Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease
  • Distinguished Service Award, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
  • Distinguished Service Award, Modern Medicine Magazine
  • Albert Einstein Commemorative Award, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University
  • Gairdner Foundation Award
  • Townsend Harris Medal for Distinguished Achievement, CCNY
  • International Physiological Union Travel Award
  • A. Ross McIntyre Award, University of Nebraska Medical Center
  • David Mahoney Institute for the Decade of the Brain Award
  • National Science Foundation Travel Award
  • Silver Medallion Award, College of Medicine of the Medical University of South Carolina
  • Torald Sollmann Award, American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics
  • Superior Service Award, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
  • Rudolph Virchow Medal, Rudolf Virchow Medical Society [NYC]

Editorial Board Service

  • Circulation Research
  • Communications in Behavioral Biology
  • Currents in Modern Biology
  • International Journal of Psychobiology
  • Journal of Medicinal Chemistry
  • Journal of Neurobiology
  • Journal of Neurochemistry
  • Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics
  • Life Sciences
  • Pharmacological Research Communications
  • Rassegna di Neurologia Vegetativa

Honorary Degrees

  • College of the City of New York
  • George Washington University
  • Hahnemann University (Philadelphia, PA)
  • McGill University
  • Medical College of Pennsylvania
  • Medical College of Wisconsin (Milwaukee)
  • New York University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Panama
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Ripon College
  • Tel Aviv University
  • Universite de Paris-Sud


  • Julius Axelrod Distinguished Lecture in Neuroscience of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation, College of the City of New York
  • British Association of Psychopharmacy
  • Cass Lecture, Pharmacology and Biochemistry Departments, University of Dundee (Scotland)
  • Lita Hazen Neuroendocrinology Lecture, Mount Sinai Medical Center (NYC)
  • Hodge Lecture, Rochester University
  • John C. Krantz, Jr., Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Lectureship, School of Medicine of the University of Maryland at Baltimore
  • Paul Lamson Memorial Lecture, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
  • Otto Loewi Memorial Lecture, NYU Medical School
  • Oliver H. Lowry Lecture, Washington University School of Medicine
  • Medicine of the University of Maryland at Baltimore
  • Nathanson Memorial Lecture, University of Southern California
  • NIH Lecture, "The Pineal Gland, a Biological Clock"
  • Parkinson Lecture, Columbia University
  • Karl E. Paschkis Memorial Lecture, Philadelphia Endocrine Society
  • Gregory Pincus Memorial Lecture, Worchester Foundation
  • Fred J. Robbins Lecturer, Pomona College (Claremont CA)
  • Royal College Lecturer of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, Royal College of Physicians And Surgeons of Canada
  • Thomas William Salmon Lecturer, New York Academy of Medicine
  • Fred W. Schueler Lectureship, Tulane Medical School
  • Edward E. Smissman Memorial Lecture, University of Kansas, School of Pharmacy
  • Henry H. Turner Lecture in Endocrinology, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation
  • Abraham White Lecturer/Scientific Achievement Award, George Washington University


  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science, fellow
  • American Chemical Society
  • American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, fellow
  • American Philosophical Society
  • American Psychophysiol Association, honorary member
  • American Society of Biological Chemists
  • American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Catecholamine Club
  • John M. Chermerda Lecture in Science, Pennsylvania State University College of Science
  • German Pharmacological Society, corresponding member
  • Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences
  • International Brain Research Organization
  • Japanese Pharmacological Society
  • National Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Society, foreign member
  • Sigma Xi
  • Worldwide Hungarian Medical Academy, honorary member