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At 16 Axelrod was graduated from high school, and at 17 he enlisted in an Army officer college training program. He was sent to study engineering at the City College of New York and the University of Delaware. When the Germans almost broke through American lines in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, all the students were rushed overseas, except Axelrod, who was too young for combat. He was apprehended at the gangplank and sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., while his clothes and equipment sailed off to France. At Fort Lewis, Axelrod served out his Army career as a private in an engineering company and whiled away his idle hours as a violinist in the Tacoma Symphony.
Upon discharge from the Army, Axelrod resumed his studies at CCNY, then transferred to New York University when offered a scholarship. His major field was mathematics and, at 19, he wrote his first published paper, "The Lattice Theory in Boolian Algebra." He took generous helpings of side courses in languages and the sciences. "The more you learn, the easier it gets to learn," he says. While working on his master's degree at NYU he taught an extension course in aquatic life that attracted great attention for its novelty. On Saturdays he took his students out to Long Island, where they explored tidal flats and swamps. He made them eat almost everything they collected. On occasion his enthusiasm for nature became so unbounded that the faculty took alarm. He was once censured by a professor for performing a caesarian on a guppy.
For a time Axelrod worked as a laboratory assistant to Professor Myron Gordon. When Professor Gordon went on a sabbatical, he recommended that Axelrod teach his course on experimental laboratory animals, most of which were tropical fish. The head of the department, Professor Charles Pieper, asked Axelrod to write out his lecture notes in advance. Axelrod did, and he left them in a pile on Professor Pieper's desk. Professor Pieper happened to be delayed in returning, and in the interim a McGraw-Hill book salesman entered, read through the notes and was entranced. As a result, McGraw-Hill asked to publish them as a book. Axelrod consented, and the subsequent book, Tropical Fish as a Hobby, published in 1952, was to make him the leading authority on the subject at the tender age of 24.
In 1950, however, Axelrod, by then engaged on his doctorate at NYU, was called back into the Army at the start of the Korean war. This time he went in as an officer—a lieutenant—and was sent to Korea, where he studied epidemic hemorrhagic fever, a blood disease, as a member of a field medical laboratory. His work called for him to take blood samples to Japan for detailed analysis and, inasmuch as the plane returned to Korea with a cargo of empty blood containers, Axelrod began filling them up with whiskey. He traded the whiskey for cigarettes, which he stuffed between the filled blood containers on the flight to Japan. As his import-export business boomed, he also began working on a second manuscript, Handbook of Tropical Aquarium Fishes.
On one trip to Japan, Axelrod visited the Tokyo University library, where he pored over the books on fishes. While looking for a misplaced volume, he happened to meet an ichthyologist, Dr. Tokiharu Abe, who showed him a copy of a book, The Opisthobranchia of Sagami Bay, that had been written by Hirohito. Axelrod riffled through the pages, then stopped to point out an error in the scientific name of an opisthobranch. Dr. Abe was incredulous, but Axelrod cited the correct reference in an obscure scientific paper he had just finished reading. With that, he bade the doctor adieu put the incident out of mind and flew back to Korea with a load of choice six-month-old Scotch.
As Axelrod now recalls it, about a fortnight later he was ordered to appear before General Matthew Ridgway in full dress uniform. Recalling that a case of whiskey had recently disappeared, Axelrod suspected that military police had seized it as evidence for a court-martial, and by the time he entered General Ridgway's office he was hoping for 10 years instead of the death penalty. To his surprise, however, the general had summoned him because Hirohito wanted Axelrod as a house guest. Ridgway wanted to know why, since no American had been asked to see the Emperor since General MacArthur had been relieved of command. Axelrod, forgetting the incident in the library, said he had no idea why he had been invited. Ridgway told Axelrod to accept the invitation and to do his best to get one for the general himself. Axelrod said he would see what he could do and went off to Japan, where he spent a week at the summer palace on Sagami Bay collecting marine invertebrates with the Emperor. Hirohito, who was most grateful for having had the error in his book pointed out to him, listened to Axelrod's plea on behalf of General Ridgway and rejected it, explaining that he and the general really had nothing in common. Axelrod says he had to agree. Hirohito then presented him with a jar of preserved eels as a gift for Dr. Leonard Schultz, curator of fishes at the Smithsonian.
Shortly afterward Axelrod was discharged, and he hastened to Washington, where he gave the eels to Dr. Schultz. He also showed Dr. Schultz a draft of the Handbook of Tropical Aquarium Fishes, and Dr. Schultz was so impressed with its potential that he agreed not only to collaborate on the work but waive his years of seniority as well and appear as junior author. Not long after this Axel-rod's first book, Tropical Fish as a Hobby, was published, and it was such an instant success that McGraw-Hill asked him to return a dozen complimentary copies so as to meet the demand. The book was successful because no one with a working scientific background had ever before written a book about tropical fish and, moreover, Axelrod, unlike previous authors, revealed breeding secrets. His description of spawning Hyphessobrycon innesi, the neon tetra, was of great moment to aquarists everywhere.
Since Axelrod had returned home in the middle of the academic year, he was unable to resume his doctoral studies and teaching position at NYU until the start of the 1952 fall term. As a returning serviceman, he was entitled to receive his salary anyway, and he used the money to finance trips to British Guiana and Malaya, where he bought tropical fish that he sold from a rented store in Manhattan.
By the time the fall term began, Axelrod was well established in business. He gave up selling fish for the nonce and started Tropical Fish Hobbyist. Using mostly pseudonyms to protect his scholarly background, he also wrote, published and distributed inexpensive booklets on fish and other pets. Within three years T.F.H. Publications, Inc. owned its own printing plant and bindery, and Axelrod was doing so handsomely that he was able to buy out several Jersey City businessmen who had backed him. Meanwhile, he was also busy on his doctorate in biostatistics. The subject of his dissertation was The Mathematical Solution of Certain Biometrical Problems, and in it he demonstrated that the statistical procedures used in 25 medical and dental research papers were incorrect. "It was a very startling study," says Dr. Axelrod, who is so fond of figures that he multiplies passing license plate numbers while driving around in his car.
Dr. Axelrod's main strength in business is his ruthlessness. A couple of years ago he decided to reprint Stroud's Digest of the Diseases of Birds, a solid research work by Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz, who spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement for murder. Stroud's agent had published the book in 1943, but it had been done poorly. Stroud was eager to see a decent edition on the market but, before giving Dr. Axelrod publication rights, he asked the doctor to endorse his appeal for freedom. "You're a murderer!" Dr. Axelrod exclaimed. "If it were up to me, you'd cook!" Stroud angrily gave the rights to another publisher, but the doctor secured the book for TFH by buying him out. Convicts, incidentally, intrigue the doctor, who has been conducting a pen-palship with prisoners he met when lecturing on tropical fish at the Indiana State Prison. To his amazement, Axelrod found that some lifers had been keeping guppies for more than 30 years despite strict regulations against pets. They had hidden generation after generation of fish in vials strapped to their bodies, and the birth of a new batch was cause for a cell-block celebration. In the interest of science, Dr. Axelrod asked the captive guppy fanciers to keep constant watch on their pets for an intensive around-the-clock study of fish behavior. "After all," says the doctor, "these guys have nothing but time on their hands." To his dismay, however, the prisoners seemed to get sadistic pleasure in keeping prisoners of their own in prison, so to speak, and instead of chronicling fish behavior, they began putting guppies into smaller and smaller containers to see how much confinement they could take before they died. Still, this was not a total loss to Dr. Axelrod, who learned that a guppy can survive in a stoppered inch-long pencil-thin test tube laid on its side.