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Nobel Prize Winner Julius Axelrod

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page B07

Julius Axelrod, 92, the National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist who shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for showing "how nerves talk to each other," died Dec. 29 at his home in Rockville. He had heart trouble in recent years.

A basket maker's son, Dr. Axelrod got a late start in the career that would bring him renown. He spent years as a biochemist in a food-testing laboratory before he focused on neuroscience, the study of nerves and their relation to behavior and learning. Described as a modest and brilliant man, he only sought a doctorate at the urging of colleagues -- and he completed it in a matter of months of night classes.

NIH neuroscientist Julius Axelrod wore glasses with a darkened lens after an accident in 1938.

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In 1970, Dr. Axelrod shared the Nobel with Sir Bernard Katz of the United Kingdom and Ulf von Euler of Sweden. The scientists discovered the way chemicals released by nerve endings in the brain affect behavior, from sleep to unruliness. The work had massive ramifications for development of drugs and for psychiatry, especially in the treatment of mental illness. Among the drugs their work helped spur were such selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors as Prozac.

As Dr. Axelrod told Robert Kanigel for his book "Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty," he did not hear of his Nobel victory until he arrived at a dental appointment that morning. He was running late, he said, and had not listened to the radio report. The dentist told him he had won the prize.

"In what?" the scientist asked.

"Peace," said the dentist.

"Then I knew he was kidding," Dr. Axelrod said.

He said he quickly drove to his lab and could not find a place to park, finally deciding, "the hell with it," and abandoned his car at the building entrance. When President Richard M. Nixon placed a congratulatory phone call, Dr. Axelrod said he made an appeal to reduce proposed federal budget cuts in research funding.

He was an unmistakable figure. For decades, he wore glasses with a darkened lens over his left eye -- after an accident in 1938 in which a bottle of ammonia exploded. "I used to wear a black patch over my eye when I was young," he once said. "It was very dashing, like Brenda Starr's husband."

Dr. Axelrod was born May 30, 1912, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and was a 1933 biology graduate of City College of New York. Shortly after, he claimed, he was rejected from medical schools because of quotas on Jewish students. "I wasn't that good a student," he added, "but if my name was Bigelow I probably would have gotten in."

He received a master's degree in chemistry from New York University in 1941 and a doctorate in pharmacology from George Washington University in 1955.

In the 1940s, he worked with his mentor, the famed drug researcher Bernard "Steve" Brodie, at Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York and at the National Institutes of Health. They made key contributions to the chemistry of analgesic, or pain-relieving, medications.

In 1948 and 1949, he wrote two papers with Brodie that established that the active ingredient in the popular headache remedy known as APC (aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine) was a new substance called acetaminophen, which Johnson & Johnson developed as Tylenol, said Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, director of Johns Hopkins University medical school's neuroscience department.

There were also several disputes, chronicled in Kanigel's book, about overlapping work for which Dr. Axelrod believed he deserved more credit. It prompted his leaving Brodie's lab and working on a doctorate to earn the credentials that would lead to an independent lab.

Dr. Axelrod said von Euler began the early work that led to their joint recognition by the Nobel committee. Von Euler had shown that the chemical noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter, which carries messages between nerve cells. Terminating the actions of neurotransmitters is of major importance. Dr. Axelrod discovered that the actions of noradrenaline and most other neurotransmitters are terminated by a pump that transports the neurotransmitter back into the nerve that had released it.

He also discovered the enzyme catechol-o-methyltransferase, which helps inactivate noradrenaline.

After winning the Nobel, he received many requests for help from average citizens.

"You get all kinds of letters from very sick people who want help -- some schizophrenics," he told The Washington Post in 1978. "It's very sad. They're always unhappy people who can't be helped, although there are anti-psychotic drugs which can be used. I write them a nice letter, saying I'm not a doctor and that they should see a psychiatrist. People are so desperate. They grasp at any straw, even a little item in a newspaper about me."

He was chief of the National Institute of Mental Health's pharmacology section from 1955 until he retired in 1984. As a scientist emeritus, he continued to direct research and study neurotransmitters.

A soft-spoken and wry-humored man, he said the esteem he received with the Nobel came at a price, notably that "people read my papers more carefully." He received an overwhelming number of invitations to speak but needed a way to winnow them. "I accept the ones I'm interested in, or," he said, "the ones in Paris. I love Paris."

His wife of 53 years, Sally Taub Axelrod, died in 1992.

Survivors include two sons, Paul Axelrod of Ripon, Wis., and Alfred Axelrod of Wausaukee, Wis.; and three grandchildren.

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