Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod is the great panjandrum of the tropical-fish world. Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod—the title and full name are always run together by admirers as though they were one word—is without rival in the burgeoning world of tropical fish. Dr. Axelrod is an intrepid ichthyologist and explorer who has made more than 40 expeditions to South America, Africa, Australia, the Fijis, Indonesia, Thailand, India and the Malay Archipelago. He can, he says, recognize more than 7,000 species of fish on sight, and he has discovered hundreds of species that were lost to science for years or, better yet, were never seen before by man. More than two dozen species of fish have been named after him, and one of these, Cheirodon axelrodi, the cardinal tetra, is the biggest seller in the world.
Besides being a fantastic discoverer of fish, Dr. Axelrod is a remarkably prolific writer. He has written more than half a dozen major books on fish, all bestsellers. His first book, Tropical Fish as a Hobby, is in its ninth printing and has sold more than 80,000 copies. Dr. Axelrod has also churned out more than 100 smaller books and pamphlets on fish, and several hundred articles as well. His typewriter is always busy. Once on a Friday, Doubleday, the publishers, asked the doctor for a book on fish. On Saturday morning he sat down to write and, by the time he stood up on Sunday evening, the manuscript was completed. On Monday it was accepted and published as Tropical Aquarium Fishes. It has sold 450,000 copies. As if to show this was no trick, Dr. Axelrod recently sat down for Fawcett and turned out a substantial paperback, Axelrod's Tropical Fish Book, over another weekend. The book is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, most of them taken by the doctor, who, with some justification, regards himself as the finest photographer of tropical fish in the world.
When not traveling up some Amazon tributary by dugout canoe or sitting before a smoking typewriter, Dr. Axelrod is kept busy presiding over the seemingly limitless destinies and rapidly multiplying fortunes of T.F.H. Publications, Inc., of which he owns 75% of the stock. T.F.H. Publications, Inc., or TFH as it is known in the trade, is the General Motors of the pet world, and its offices are in, of all places, Jersey City. Here, in a yellow three-story building of his own design, the doctor publishes All-Pets magazine, a monthly given over to such articles as "The Four-Toed Tortoise" and "Peafowl, from a Hobby to a Business," and his own very special baby, Tropical Fish Hobbyist, which not only has the largest circulation of any aquarium magazine but is, as the cover has proclaimed, THE ONLY AQUARIUM MAGAZINE IN THE WORLD ILLUSTRATED INSIDE WITH COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS!!! Invariably, these photographs have been taken by Dr. Axelrod to illustrate one of his own articles about an expedition he headed, net in one hand, rifle in the other, into some obscure backwater in search of a spotted Corydoras catfish. Among the subscribers who have thrilled to the doctor's accounts of rare adventure was the late Winston Churchill, who carried on a correspondence with him about fancy goldfish. Churchill, however, was merely one of a number of world figures enthralled by the doctor. He has been on intimate terms with the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, a renowned sea-slug specialist; the former King of the Belgians, Leopold III; and the President of Brazil, Humberto Castelo Branco, who has asked Dr. Axelrod to draw up a conservation program for the Amazon.
In addition to magazines, Dr. Axelrod also publishes thousands of booklets dealing with all aspects of the pet world. Among those he has published are such bestsellers as Modern American Mouse, Colorful Egglayers, Trick Training Cats, Your Terrarium, Horned Toads Pets, Monkey Business, Snakes as Pets and Rats as Pets. For some time now Ernest Walker, former assistant director of the Washington zoo, has been after TFH to publish a companion volume, Bats as Pets, but Dr. Axelrod has resisted his friend on the grounds that there are no pet shops selling bats. Walker keeps several free-flying bats in his Washington apartment, and whenever Dr. Axelrod comes to call, Walker, fearful lest his pets escape, opens the door a crack and whispers, "Come in quickly."
At least once a month Dr. Axelrod takes a flying trip to Florida, where TFH owns five tropical-fish farms near Tampa. TFH is the biggest breeder of tropical fish in the world; at last count there were approximately six million fish down on the farms. All in all, TFH so dominates the field of fish that a couple of cosmetic companies, seeking to diversify, recently offered the doctor $7 million to sell out. He refused, because he was making piles of money, and he has used part of the substantial profits of TFH to further the study of fish. Two years ago he reprinted Jordan and Evermann's four-volume classic on systematic ichthyology, The Fishes of North and Middle America
, which had long been out of print, and presented 2,000 sets to the Smithsonian Institution free of charge. The Smithsonian has been selling the volumes at $25 a set, and all the proceeds go toward tropical-fish research and expeditions. On occasion Dr. Axelrod has dug deep into his pocket to finance expeditions by others when he has been tied down by affairs in Jersey City. He dispatched Dr. Jacques Gery of the Laboratoire Arago of the University of Paris to Gabon to search for exotic fish, and Dr. Martin Brittan of Sacramento State College has taken a couple of treks into unexplored Brazil in quest of an elusive blood-red tetra, thanks to the doctor's largess.
In his own spare hours, infrequent though they may be, Dr. Axelrod is fond of playing Bach sonatas on the violin and reading deeply in the sciences. He holds degrees in mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology and, since he is fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Hebrew and Japanese, can get along in Russian and Polish and grasp the essentials in Hungarian and Swedish, his range of reading is wide as well as deep. The doctor has been a crack golfer, bowler and swimmer (when only 10 he swam 15 miles, from the American shore to the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario), but his favorite sports nowadays are racing pigeons and fishing. He is one of a handful of anglers who have caught an Atlantic sailfish on a fly rod, and when he made his first million he celebrated by building four of the most luxurious pigeon coops in existence on the roof of his Jersey City emporium. At noontime he often clambers up to the roof and sends the pigeons flying while he munches on a sandwich. When in residence in Jersey City the doctor always lunches on a double liverwurst on rye sent in from Bauer's Delicatessen, but on the road he is a far more adventurous gourmet. As one might expect, his favorite dish is fish, any kind of fish, but in the jungle he sometimes gluts himself on howler-monkey stew. A good meal counts for a lot with the doctor. In fact, he once broke a trip from an aquarium in Frankfurt am Main to Cairo, where he was to inspect fish carvings inside a pyramid, just to stop off in Rome for a highly touted plate of spaghetti.
This man of enormous energies and myriad talents is also a man of mystery. Rumors abound about Axelrod. One rumor, essentially true, has it that he dwells in splendor in an opulent bomb shelter and fortress tucked into the Jersey coast. Another story goes that, though the doctor is well into his 70s, he does not look a day over 45. In point of fact, Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod, ichthyologist, explorer, author, linguist, tycoon and sportsman, is only 37 years of age. Meeting him for the first time is somewhat like discovering the real identity of the Wizard of Oz.
Dr. Axelrod, a burly six-footer, purposely keeps himself from public view for several reasons. For one, he believes that his private life is his own business. For another, he has no desire to be called at any hour of the night by an aquarist in Oklahoma City whose swordtails have fallen prey, say, to a mild case of Ichthyopthirius. For still another, Dr. Axelrod finds most people are bores. He once refused to meet Jacques Cousteau; he thought Cousteau was a bore. Indeed, Dr. Axelrod has been known to interrupt conversations with close friends by yawning in their faces and telling them to leave because he was bored. "I'm not rude for rudeness' sake," says the doctor. "I just don't have time to beat around the bush." When he was younger he worried that he had a personality problem, and he consulted a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist dismissed him at once on the grounds that Dr. Axelrod was the happiest man he had ever met, because he had no inhibitions. Possibly as a result of his complete lack of inhibitions, Dr. Axelrod is tremendously fond of quarrels and litigation. In recent years he has been sued 14 times, and the filing of each suit gave him as much joy as the discovery of a new species of fish. Several cases arose out of denunciations Dr. Axelrod made of certain fish dealers in Tropical Fish Hobbyist, but inasmuch as he considers himself the world's ranking expert on tropical fish, he has no doubt that he will win them all. As a matter of fact, he has so far won 13 of the lawsuits, with the other one pending. "I like to match wits," says the doctor. "A lawsuit is a chess game. When there's no challenge, I'm not interested."
Dr. Axelrod grew up in Bayonne, N.J., just to the south of Jersey City. Bayonne, a grimy oil refinery town fronting Upper New York Bay, is an unlikely place to spawn a naturalist of Dr. Axelrod's stature, but in the days of his youth it still possessed marshlands and creeks unbefouled by oil wastes. The family had little money—Axelrod's father, Dr. Aaron Axelrod, now vice-president of TFH, taught mathematics in a local high school—but young Herbert earned pocket money by pressing pants, with characteristic gusto, for an overwhelmed tailor and catching blue crabs, which he sold to Chinese laundrymen. For a dime he purchased a nondescript pair of pigeons from a fellow urchin, and he housed them in a sawed-off orange crate he kept hidden down alleys and under stoops. Despite his best efforts, the pigeons made their mark on neighborhood porches and roofs, and protesting landlords forced the family to move several times. "I was crazy about the pigeons!" Dr. Axelrod recalls in a typical burst of enthusiasm. "I took them to school and hid them there. I used to take them into my room at night. I couldn't leave them. I didn't know it, but I actually developed the first mobile pigeon loft. It took the Army years to do that, and I did it as a kid!"
In high school Axelrod's passion for knowledge was such that he asked his father to send him to a Jesuit prep school in Jersey City. But since Dr. Axelrod p�re was teaching in the high school that his son was attending, he refused, because he did not want to denigrate the teaching abilities of his colleagues. Undaunted, Axelrod fits took to cutting school two or three times a week to attend Brooklyn Tech on the sly, because the teachers there were stimulating. Whatever Axelrod did, he did to the hilt. He had an IQ of 181, but he was nagged by doubts that spurred him to further efforts. "I guess I always wanted to show off," he says. "I was an ugly kid, with pimples all over my face. I weighed 110 pounds, and no girl would go out with me. I was obsessed with sex."