My top 10 favorite scientists: #1 – Julius Axelrod

This is the first in a series of planned posts on my “Top 10 favorite scientists”. Part of the fun is to think about how to choose them; it’s been hard, but I think that I have made my choice. That said, if I feel like it, I may add more. This is my blog after all…


Everyone needs role models, scientists are no exception. Fortunately, we have plenty to choose from! It is important to point out though that as in any walk of life, in science we have the good, the bad, the ugly, the rude, the dishonest and the misunderstood, among many other traits. Remember that no human is perfect; as an incredibly wise person once said “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone“… This fact does not mean that an imperfect person is incapable of providing a good example.

Here of course, I’d like to talk about scientific role models. The first obvious factor that influences the choice of a role model is the specific area of interest of the person. We would expect that a biologist looks up to another like-minded biologist for example. Other factors that may contribute to the choice of a role model is any particular situation in the life of such scientists that one can identify with. In the particular case of yours truly, there are many details in the life of the scientist that I’ll talk about now that hits very, very close to home. This scientist is a role model for me because of his specific research (pharmacology) as well because of his personal history.

Enter Julius Axelrod (1912-2004). He was one of the central figures in modern neuropharmacology. Many aspects of his contributions to science are of central importance in our society. Here are just a few examples of his achievements:

*He described the mechanism of action of caffeine (my favorite psychoactive substance) and its metabolism in humans.

*He worked on a series of compounds that were eventually developed into the analgesics acetaminophen and ibuprofen (a.k.a., Tylenol and Motrin). If these drugs work for you when you have a headache, now you know know who to thank!

*He discovered and described the process of neurotransmitter reuptake. For all of you non-pharmacologists (nobody’s perfect), neurotransmitter reuptake plays a central role in many disease states, from addiction to depression. Yes, it’s that important.

Axelrod obtained his undergraduate degree at 21, in 1933. If you remember your history, this was right in the middle of the Great Depression. You think things are tough now? Crack a history book and read about the Great Depression (I know you’ll probably Google it though).

Anyway, young Julius was offered a job upon graduation ($25 a month) and he took it. Although he wanted to continue his education immediately, his personal and economic realities did not allow it. That means that he became a nontraditional student. He kept his job while he worked in his graduate degree and he finally obtained his PhD in 1955, at age 42. Then, as now, the typical PhD graduate is in his/her 20s, so he was kind of behind in the game right there. Nonetheless, over the years he trained many scientists that nowadays compose a veritable “who’s who” in pharmacology; many of Axelrod’s trainees have built distinguished careers of their own.

It gets better, in 1970, Dr. Axelrod shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions to the physiological basis of neurotransmission.

Not bad, not bad at all!

I would have given him the prize just for his caffeine work, but that’s just me…

Some of the commonalities that all successful non-traditional students share are perseverance, a strong work ethic, a willingness to work for what they want and the sense of dignity that makes them want to earn their degrees among others.

You see, if you have been bitten by the “science bug”, do not let age alone weight on your decision to go back to school or even to start with school! This, of course, applies to any choice in life; you may want to become a writer, a teacher, an accountant, etc., you get the picture.

I, of course, use the science example because I know a thing or two about it, and because I speak from experience, as I am a non-traditional student myself. After college, I was a high school teacher among other things; after a couple of years I started working as a research technician in a medical school, where I worked for about ten years and earned a Master’s degree, got married and had my first two children while at it.

At 35, I got the opportunity to work on my PhD at a top institution; I finished at 40, and now I am an active, practicing scientist, researcher and professor (no, no Nobel Prize… yet (:-)…).


Dr. Julius Axelrod. Credit:

Note: Part of the material in this post was based on one of my previous posts on the topic of non-traditional students.

If you want to know more:

Axelrod J (1988) An unexpected life in research. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 28:1-23.

Kanigel R (1993) Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty. Johns Hopkins University Press

Nobel Prize website:



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