The Nobel Prize and Public Science after 1970

In 1967, Axelrod's work in neuroscience and pharmacology earned him the prestigious Gairdner Award, which many people believe to predict the likelihood of a scientist winning the Nobel Prize. Anticipating his fame, in 1968 the New York University School (now Tisch School) of the Arts sponsored a broadcast series, By the Year 2000, and asked Axelrod to predict how his research would affect citizens in the future. In the new millennium, Axelrod claimed, we would have "new drugs to relieve mental illness . . . drugs to remove prejudice, to store memory, to suppress memory, to enhance intelligence. . . . [A]ll psychedelic trips (since we can control them) will be good ones." Although such predictions might seem fanciful or even ironic, Axelrod would witness how his research into the metabolism and function of neurotransmitters would spawn what some have called a "quiet revolution" in psychiatry before the end of the 20th century.

Axelrod's discovery of the reuptake of neurotransmitters by the originating nerve ending provided a new model for understanding the metabolism and regulation of neurotransmitters. His research suggested that mental states were the result of complicated physiology and brain chemistry, rather than the sole result of psychological or environmental factors. This ushered in an era of pharmacological drugs that were designed to inhibit or stimulate neurotransmitters in the nervous system. The antidepressant drugs known as tricyclics prevent the pre-synaptic reuptake of dopamine. By contrast, reserpine (which had limited use as an anti-psychotic agent in the early 1950s, and was later used to control hypertension) greatly reduces the release of neurotransmitters. Today's antidepressant drugs still rely on Axelrod's discoveries about neurotransmitter reuptake, although the emphasis on monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) has shifted to that of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac, which relieve symptoms of both depression and anxiety.

After he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1970, Axelrod became a visible public figure. He made concerted efforts to translate the complexities of his laboratory work--and the work of other researchers in neuroscience--for a larger lay audience. In 1974, he published a well-received article for Scientific American on the varied functions of neurotransmitters. Axelrod also gave many informative and often entertaining interviews about new developments in psychopharmacology to national and international journalists. In 1973, for example, when a reporter for the St. Paul Dispatch of Minnesota asked Axelrod about the perceived dangers of drugs like marijuana, he replied, "There's all kinds of mythology on marijuana, and it's a pity, because it's a legal [and not a health] problem."

At the same time, however, Axelrod grew increasingly aware of the public power conferred on him as a Nobel Laureate and became involved in many contested political issues that extended far beyond the laboratory. As he remarked to the Washington Post in 1978, "I was always conscious of [political issues], but before no one asked me to sign petitions. A Nobel Laureate's signature is very visible." At the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm in December 1970, Axelrod criticized younger people who, he felt, wrongly challenged the research performed by him and his generation of scientists in the cultural climate of late 1960s anti-establishment thinking. Viewers can examine this speech in the Documents section. In June 1973, after President Richard Nixon signed a bill to create the Conquest of Cancer Agency, a group of NIH-affiliated Laureates led by Axelrod, Christian Anfinsen, and Marshall Nirenberg organized an emergency meeting of the Federation of American Scientists. The FAS released a petition to Nixon signed by 3,000 biomedical scientists who protested the creation of the Agency, arguing that its narrow focus on applied cancer research would reduce or eliminate funding for basic biomedical research in allied disciplines.

Axelrod also lent his name and stature to many other controversial political causes of the era. In 1973, Axelrod joined other prominent U.S. scientists who decried the former U.S.S.R. government's treatment of the dissident nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. In December 1974, Axelrod threatened to withdraw his participation from the International Brain Research Organization affiliated with the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after the organization threatened sanctions against Israel. Later, Axelrod joined a group called the Committee of Concerned Scientists; in 1975, the group publicly criticized the Soviet authorities' imprisonment of neuropathologist Ilya Glezer and, in 1977, they protested the mistreatment of electrochemist Benjamin Levich.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Axelrod continued his research on the actions of neurotransmitters, including new work on stress hormones, until his formal retirement from the NIH in 1984. In 1987, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation established the Julius Axelrod Distinguished Lecture in Neuroscience at the City University of New York, Axelrod's alma mater. In 1992, the NIH sponsored a one-day scientific symposium and 80th birthday celebration "in honor of Julie," devoted to Axelrod's life and work. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was an unpaid Guest Researcher at the NIMH in the Laboratory of Cell Biology (now the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Regulation). Viewers can read an unpublished manuscript from 1994 that he wrote on signal transduction in neurotransmitters in the Documents section. Axelrod died in Rockville, MD, on December 29, 2004.