Richard Axel Biography

Scientist, Neurologist(1946–)
American neuroscientist Richard Axel is best known for his work on the olfactory system, exploring how the brain interprets smell.


Born on July 2, 1948, in Brooklyn, New York, famed neuroscientist Richard Axel is best known for his work on the olfactory system, exploring how the brain interprets smell through the olfactory cells at the back of the nasal cavity. He and his partner, Linda B. Buck, discovered that there are nearly 1,000 genes that produce an equivalent number of olfactory receptors, which play a major role in scent detection. Axel and Buck shared the 2004 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their important research of the olfactory system.

Early Life

Neurologist Richard Axel was born on July 2, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish immigrant parents who relocated to the United States after Nazis invaded their homeland. Having been raised in a working class family, books and music weren't available to Axel as a child. He instead spent his time focused on extracurricular activities, such as baseball and basketball. His jobs throughout his youth varied, but none of them were academic. Axel worked as a messenger, a carpenter and a server, at ages 11, 12 and 13, respectively.

With Axel's priorities concerning athletics instead of academics during his youth, he was dismayed when his principal sent him to Stuyvesant High School instead of the local high school in Brooklyn—the school in Brooklyn had the best basketball team in the borough, while Stuyvesant was known as a school for intellectually exceptional boys. While Axel was originally against the idea, he engulfed himself in the world of arts of culture that he hadn't previously been exposed to.

Axel's interest in athletics persisted while attending Stuyvesant, and a moment on the team was engraved in his memory during this time. While playing against another high school, the opposing center confronted Axel on the court and said, "What are you going to do, Einstein?" That player was Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Challenging Education

Following high school, Axel attended Columbia University, choosing to study literature. He developed a passion for science in the 1960s, when the structure and code for DNA had recently been uncovered. A young Axel worked as a research assistant during his time as an undergraduate, and he decided to further pursue his interest in biology by going to graduate school for genetics.

In order to avoid joining the military due to the draft, Axel had to forgo his plans of going to graduate school and instead enrolled in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. An unprepared student, Axel struggled while attending Johns Hopkins. He was only allowed to graduate under the pretense that he ensured the deans that he would never to practice medicine on living patients. He returned to his alma mater of Columbia as a pathology major and worked performing autopsies, keeping in line with his promise. After one year of studying pathology, he was asked by the chairman of the subject to never practice on dead patients either.

Molecular Research

Axel finally began working in a lab on a molecular level as he joined the department of genetics at Columbia. It wasn't long before his superior, Sol Spiegelman, gave Axel the opportunity to work as an assistant professor and operate within his own lab in the Institute of Cancer Research at Columbia in 1974. While working as an assistant professor, the novel concept of isolating genes and transforming DNA, which came to be known as recombinant DNA, was developed.

While the discovery was landmark—it was the beginnings of what became known as biotechnology—recombinant DNA caused an uproar among the masses, who said the scientists were playing God by interfering with the natural design of DNA. In 1978, Axel became a professor in his own right and continued his research concerning DNA. Four years later, Axel decided to apply what he discovered in molecular biology and apply it to the problems of the mind in neuroscience.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Although Axel wasn't knowledgeable on the subject, as he continued to study of the brain with his colleagues then his interest in neuroscience grew throughout the '80s. It was during this time that he began working on the link between genetics and the way the outside world is interpreted by the brain. Axel worked with one of his students from Columbia during the early '80s, Linda B. Buck, to conduct his research. Within the next few years, the duo made the discovery that 1,000 genes that encode odor receptors were in the nasal cavity. After the receptors encode the odors, signals are sent to the brain and interpret what the smell is.

They published their research in the paper "A Novel Multigene Family May Encode Odorant Receptors: A Molecular Basis for Odor Recognition," in 1999. Their influential and impactful discovery didn't go unnoticed. In 2004, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Personal Life

Axel is married to fellow scientist Cornelia Bargmann. He also has two sons, Adam and Jonathan. The couple live in New York.

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