1912: Almost-postman Who Won a Nobel for Paving Way to Prozac Is Born

When no medical school accepted him, Julius Axelrod took the exam for postal workers. Yet he won a Nobel for his work on antidepressants.

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Julius Axelrod writing on the blackboard.
Julius Axelrod checking a student's work on the chemistry of catecholamine reactions in nerve cells, 1973. Credit: National Institutes of Health

May 30, 1912, is the birthdate of Julius Axelrod, the biochemist whose research played a key role in the development of the SSRI antidepressants — which include Prozac and Zoloft — and helped him win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. It also was Axelrod, together with his mentor Bernard Brodie, who proposed the use of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol and Israel’s Acamol, as an alternative to aspirin.

Although Axelrod became a brilliant designer of laboratory experiments, he did poorly in chemistry in college, was rejected at all the medical schools he applied to (though he suspected it was because of anti-Semitism). He almost became a postal worker in 1933 before landing a $25-a-month lab job.

Julius Axelrod was born and grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Both his parents — Isadore Axelrod and the former Molly Leichtling — were immigrants from Polish Galicia, and neither ever became fully functional in reading or writing English. Isadore wove flower baskets, which he sold to local grocers from a horse and wagon.

The family was not Orthodox in observance, but Julius attended daily heder as a child, and grew up with a strong cultural-Jewish identity. He spoke Yiddish at home.

He attended PS 22, and graduated in 1929 from Seward High School. He attended New York University for a year, before the money ran out, when he transferred to the public City College of New York, where he received his B.S. in biology in 1933.

Axelrod’s early hope of becoming a doctor was foiled when no medical school accepted him — his grades were not high, but he was sure that quotas were responsible — and so he took the exam for aspiring postal workers. Fortunately, he found a job in an NYU lab, which paid him $25 a month to study the enzymes in malignant tumors. When the money there dried up, he moved, in 1935, to a job at the New York City department of health, assaying the levels of vitamins in food products.

In 1938, the year that he married Sally Taub, Axelrod lost the sight in his left eye in a laboratory accident, an injury that kept him out of the army during World War II. Thereafter he wore a shaded lens over that eye.

In 1946, Axelrod began working at the Goldwater Memorial Hospital, part of NYU, where he and his boss, Bernard Brodie, sought an alternative to what was then the most popular non-aspirin analgesic, acetanilide, which interfered with the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen in some people. They came up with acetaminophen, though it was such drugmakers as McNeil Laboratories that profited from their discovery. When Brodie moved to the newly founded National Heart Institute, near Washington, D.C., in 1949, Axelrod went with him.

Axelrod spent the rest of his career at what evolved into the National Institutes of Health, where he began studying the mechanism by which the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine, also known as adrenalin and noradrenalin, are either metabolized or deactivated. These are chemicals that stimulate the heart and the nervous system when the body confronts a threat, and it was by understanding how they are processed that he discovered the class of drugs that neutralized that mechanism. These drugs, called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors – SSRIs – are used to fight depression and anxiety.

Axelrod shared his Nobel Prize with Swedish scientist Ulf von Euler and Britain’s Bernard Katz, each of whom worked separately on a different aspect of the topic.

Axelrod was well known for his simplicity and a lack of pretense. He was at his dentist’s office when he learned that he had won a Nobel Prize, having missed the radio news the morning it was announced. “In what?” he asked the dentist, who responded, “Peace.”

“Then I knew he was kidding,” Axelrod later recalled to science writer Robert Kanigel.

Though Axelrod was a non-believing Jew, he was a public advocate on behalf of Soviet “refusenik” scientists, and he protested international efforts to isolate and demonize Israel.

Julius Axelrod officially retired in 1984, but continued doing research and writing papers. He died of a heart attack on December 29, 2004.

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