December 2011

Bernard Axelrod, longtime Purdue professor (1914 - 2011)

online_obitBernard “Barney” Axelrod, professor emeritus and former head of the biochemistry department at Purdue University, died at home Oct. 22. He was 87.

Axelrod, who spent 15 years working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture before entering academia in 1954, along with his colleagues, established the presence of the pentose phosphate shunt, an important alternative pathway for the metabolism of glucose and other sugars in higher plants. He also developed methods to isolate intact mitochondria and study their role in the energy production system of plants.

Axelrod earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Wayne State University in 1935 and soon after took a job at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. During his tenure with the agency, he obtained his master’s degree in organic chemistry from the George Washington University and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Georgetown University.

At the USDA, he rose to become the head of the enzymology division of the Western Regional Research Laboratory in Albany, Calif. In 1950, he took a two-year leave to serve as a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology. It was at Caltech that he performed what was then cutting-edge research into plant biochemistry and identified the pentose phosphate shunt and developed isolation methods for mitochondria. His work was recognized by a USDA Distinguished Service Award in 1952.

In 1954, Axelrod joined Purdue’s agricultural chemistry department and focused his research on enzymatic phosphate transfer reactions, carbohydrate metabolism and the properties of lipoxygenase isoenzymes in soybeans.

Over the years, he advised dozens of graduate students; helped plan and implement a reorganization of the department; and, for 11 years starting in 1964, served as chairman. Under his leadership, the department saw the number of faculty members and students triple and research funding increase significantly.

In 1972, Axelrod took an adjunct professor appointment with the Indiana University School of Medicine, where he developed and taught a highly acclaimed course that led to an outstanding teaching award in 1982.

Three years later, Axelrod retired, but he continued to work in the lab and publish his findings.

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I was one of the first two graduate students assigned to Dr. Axelrod when he joined the Biochemistry Department at Purdue; the other being Grace Sewell. In addition to my wife, I credit Dr. Axelrod with what success I achieved during and post-Purdue.(I could never bring myself to address him by his first name or his nickname because of my utmost respect for him). He assigned me to work on lipoxidase (later: lipoxygenase) and we together published a breakthrough on its "mechanism" as my Master's Thesis (Journal of Biological Chemistry, Vol. 232, No. 1, 1958, pp.193-202). I knew that Dr. Axelrod had had a heart attack and was aged (as I now find myself near 80) but had expected to hear from the Biochemistry Department of his demise and I suppose that it will appear in their latest issue of "The Catalyst" which I've not yet received. My belated condolences are hereby offered to his children. Their father was an inspiration to me ...



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