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."
May 2, 1965
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."
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.
If there was one turning point in the fortunes of Dr. Axelrod and TFH, it came in 1958, when he took his greatest gamble by publishing the Encyclopedia of Tropical Fishes, which he wrote with William Vorderwinkler, editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist. "I did everything that other publishers said I shouldn't do," says the doctor. "We used big pictures. We used big type. They said everything was wrong, that it was a completely lousy book by their standards. They said I was going to ruin myself. I put every cent I had into it, and then I went off to Africa and I said to myself that I'd either come back a millionaire or a bum. The Encyclopedia was a success, and we sell 15,000 copies a year. We've been shooting craps in the publishing business for the last 10 years, and we've been winning." In point of fact, Dr. Axelrod is a very lucky crap shooter. He remembers a night in Haiti when he rolled 17 straight passes, then played 21 and beat the dealer. Astounded, the owner of the casino and the croupier, who had been following him around, ominously insisted he stay the rest of the night to play 21 with them. Dr. Axelrod did, and he cleaned them out, too. "They couldn't believe what I was doing," he says as a matter of course, "so I told them I was cheating."
More than anyone else in the world Dr. Axelrod is responsible for the changing tastes in the aquarium hobby today. The hobby started in grim seriousness in Germany 100 years ago, and for years goldfish were the rage. But then, in the 1920s and 1930s, tropicals began to edge in, and in the past few years goldfish have been all but discarded in favor of tropical after tropical, thanks in good part to the expeditions, discoveries and writings of Dr. Axelrod. In the last five years alone, TFH imported more species of fish than aquarists had seen in all history. Today Dr. Axelrod, TFH and the U.S. lead the world in tropical fish expertise, and Germany, the onetime leader, is a distant second.
A living memorial to the doctor is Cheirodon axelrodi, the cardinal tetra, which he discovered lurking in a reach of the Upper Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, in 1954. This discovery is regarded as the greatest ever made in tropical fish, but the doctor himself did not know for an entire year that he had happened upon a species wholly unknown to science. The cardinal tetra, an extremely colorful fish, bears a superficial resemblance to its cousin, Hyphessobrycon innesi, the neon tetra, and Dr. Axelrod, thinking he had found a race of giant neons, marketed them as such after bringing back a shipment to the U.S. To his astonishment, they spawned differently from the neons, and he at once sent several specimens to his old friend and collaborator, Dr. Schultz at the Smithsonian, for classification. Upon examination, Dr. Schultz rang up Dr. Axelrod to announce that the fish not only constituted a new species of tetra but, moreover, a close look at their teeth showed that they belonged to a new genus as well. Dr. Schultz described the new fish in the February 20, 1956 issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist and assigned it the name of Cheirodon axelrodi in honor of its discoverer. Then, on the very next day, in an issue of The Stanford Ichthyological Bulletin, Professors George Myers and Stanley Weitzman, outstanding taxonomists in their own right, described a specimen they happened to have, and they called it Hyphessobrycon cardinalis. The fight started. Debate raged for more than a year and a half until the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature convened and gave the nod to axelrodi. This contretemps is merely one of a number the doctor has figured in with academic ichthyologists, and their sotto voce asides about his being a pushy upstart rankle. "I've been hated for years because I've combined science with business," says Dr. Axelrod, happily putting in the zing. "The guys who criticized me initially for selling science for money are now the ones who try to sell me science for money, including some of my so-called best friends."
Dr. Axelrod's favorite collecting grounds are the Amazon and its tributaries, which support an extraordinarily large and varied number of fishes. "The Amazon River system, I would judge," says the doctor "produces enough protein in one month to feed the world for a year." Most of his jaunts into the jungle are done with Harald Schultz, a specialist on Indian ethnology at the S√£o Paulo museum, who is not to be confused with Dr. Leonard Schultz, much less Willie Schwartz, another Brazilian collecting crony. Harald Schultz has been macheted, blowgunned, pummeled, trampled upon and threatened in the course of his field investigations on the tribal rites of hostile Indians, and Dr. Axelrod considers him the bravest man he has ever met. Schultz, in turn, looks upon the doctor as a strong, powerful man, a tremendous genius with a strange personality and a range of accomplishments that can only be likened to Charlie Chaplin's. He also looks upon the doctor as the most foolhardy man he has ever met. Schultz thinks Dr. Axelrod's penchant for swimming with piranhas is a ghastly business—the doctor believes piranhas are not at all vicious and that their bad reputation comes from a bum rap by Teddy Roosevelt, who journeyed up the Amazon in 1913. Schultz was once so put out at Axelrod's grabbing a passing snake by the tail that he refused, on principle, to come to the doctor's aid even though his screams for help indicated that the snake was about to win out. Dr. Axelrod managed to escape unscathed, but Schultz did nothing more than lie in his hammock with a look of anguish. Considering Dr. Axelrod's foolhardiness, he has done reasonably well in the jungle. His only mishap occurred last November when, exhausted from netting rare fish, he settled down to sleep on top of several fire-ant hills that escaped his usually keen eye. He was bitten severely, and he had to spend a month in a hospital in Manaus getting mammoth injections of cortisone.
In Dr. Axelrod's absence, Schultz collects fishes on his own. Named after him is Hyphessobrycon haraldschultzi, commonly known as Harald Schultz's tetra, first cousin to Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi, the black neon tetra. Not long ago Dr. Axel rod received a letter from Schultz announcing that he had at last found a fish beautiful enough to be named for Schultz's wife, Vilma, and the fish, which has a bright-red belly and two metallic blue spots, was subsequently called Copella vilmae. In addition to genus Hyphessobrycon, Schultz and Dr. Axelrod also have a double entry going for them in Symphysodon aequifosciata haraldi, the blue discus, and Symphysodon aequifosciata axelrodi, the brown discus. A species of goby, Butis butis, rediscovered by Lee Ching Eng, a renowned Jakarta fish exporter, is widely known as Axelrod's crazy fish. It so happens that when Dr. Axelrod entered Lee's establishment late one night in 1959, the proprietor shouted, "Dr. Axelrod! I've discovered a new fish!" The doctor looked at the fish, which likes to swim upside down, and remarked, "I doubt that it's new, but it sure is acting crazy." From then on, Lee called it Axelrod's crazy fish.
The honor of bestowing the scientific name on a new species of fish falls to the taxonomist who describes it and not to the discoverer. Fish have been named after Dr. Axelrod largely in recognition of his forays into unknown areas, but the fact is that the doctor has the knack of finding new fish where others have looked long and hard. A prize example of this that he likes to cite occurred in Trinidad several years ago. The island of Trinidad has more fish collectors per capita than any other place in the world. It has been thoroughly combed, so much so that the government has imposed a closed season on collecting for fear that the island's fishes are in danger of extinction. One afternoon, net at the ready, Dr. Axelrod landed in Piarco airport and immediately seined a small pool at the edge of the runway. As onlookers gasped audibly—the doctor vividly remembers the chorus of sucked-in breaths—the net yielded hundreds of specimens of a bright-red fish that had never been seen before by any Trinidadian, or any taxonomist in the world, for that matter. Flying on to Rio, Dr. Axelrod dropped off some specimens with Dr. Haraldo Travassos of the Museo Nacional, who classified them as belonging to the tetra family. He named the species Aphyocharax axelrodi. Ordinarily Dr. Axelrod does not boast about discovering a new species, but he is rather proud of this find, which is marketed widely as the red pristella. "It was like going to a high school ball game and finding five Babe Ruths, four Lou Gehrigs, two Pee Wee Reeses and one Duke Snider," says the doctor.
Dr. Axelrod's knack for discovering the unusual is not confined to fish. While dining recently in the best restaurant in Bogotà, he detected a bitter taste in his cup of Colombian coffee. Draining it down, he discovered a cockroach, and instead of being dismayed he was elated. He took the cockroach back to his hotel room, popped it in a bottle of formalin and sent it to the Smithsonian in the hope that it might be a new species. If it is, the suggestion has been made that it be named after the restaurant.
The Axelrod knack also extends to people. While returning from the Brazilian jungle for a rest in Manaus, he met a fellow scientist in the elevator of the hotel. The scientist turned out to be Dr. Jean-Pierre Gosse, adviser to Leopold III, former King of the Belgians. Dr. Gosse refused to believe that Dr. Axelrod was the Dr. Axelrod—Gosse, too, had heard the rumor that the doctor was well into his 70s—but Dr. Axelrod was finally able to prove his identity by citing the name of a species of fish, Neolebias axelrodi (what else?), then under taxonomic dispute at the British Museum. Dr. Gosse introduced Dr. Axelrod to King Leopold, who was staying just down the hall, and Axelrod, in turn, had his doubts that King Leopold was really King Leopold. The King finally was able to confirm his identity to the doctor's satisfaction, and the two of them had a joyous week together on the Amazon spearing game fish, Arapaima gigas by day and Osteoglossum bicirrhosum by night. Dr. Axelrod, incidentally, was the first man to capture young Osteoglossa, which are carried in the mother's mouth. The fish always swallows her young when speared or netted, but the doctor showed Leopold how to obtain the young by severing the mother's head with a swift slice from a machete. Upon the King's departure for home, Dr. Axelrod presented him with a pet jaguar that had a nasty habit of biting the doctor's ankles, and Leopold, forewarned, gave the animal to the Brussels zoo. Since then the doctor and the King have exchanged visits in Belgium and Jersey City, and last year Leopold presented Dr. Axelrod with a brace of Belgian racing pigeons. They are now ensconced in the luxurious lofts atop TFH headquarters, but the doctor, a member in good standing of the Ideal Racing Pigeon Club, has not entered them against local competition on the grounds that it would be unfair, because Belgian pigeons are the fastest in the world.
In Brazil, Dr. Axelrod has also become very much involved with Willie Schwartz, an eccentric German Jewish refugee who fled the perils of Nazism for the relative safety of the Matto Grasso. Together they helped gather creatures for a couple of Walt Disney's nature epics. One of Disney's more difficult orders was for a pair of rare black jaguars. Schwartz and Dr. Axelrod managed to capture one, but they were unable to come up with another. Finally Axelrod says he suggested that they catch a run-of-the-mill jaguar and convert it. They did, Dr. Axelrod administered an anesthetic, and he and Schwartz trucked the beast to a hairdresser in Manaus, where it was bleached and dyed and shipped off to Hollywood.
Life in the wild still spells joy for Dr. Axelrod, but in recent months his thinking has turned more and more toward the booming business of TFH. "I'm really a deep thinker sailing far out into space," says the doctor. "I can sit in a chair for hours just thinking until I'm numb. I'm a great thinker. I go to sleep thinking, and I wake up thinking. I go to sleep with my hands folded behind my head. I have grandiose plans. I never think small!" A couple of years ago, after a bout of deep thinking, Dr. Axelrod seized upon the idea of the Fish-In-A-Flash kit. "It was the most successful flop I've ever been involved with!" he exults. He took the eggs of Nothobranchius palmquisti, an East African fish that lays eggs that can survive drought, to a toy trade show in New York and showed how they would hatch in a glass of water. Wholesalers and mail-order houses piled in with $8 million worth of orders. Dr. Axelrod started his own hatchery to produce eggs by the millions for kits, but he had to cease production because the initial customers were disappointed. The hatched fish were almost microscopic, and the customers had difficulty seeing them. "They expected—pop!—two-inch, beautifully colored fish," says the doctor. "It was a bust."
The doctor tried a new scheme last year with Quaker Oats, manufacturers of Cap'n Crunch breakfast food. TV commercials for the product feature a Cap'n Crunch, who skippers a ship called the Guppy, and the doctor thought that this looked like a natural. He made arrangements with Quaker Oats to supply a pair of guppies to any tot who wrote in, enclosing a Crunch box top and 19¢, but the deal fell through when the doctor refused to guarantee that the guppies would live. "Who knows what a kid is going to do to fish?" he asks.
The doctor's present grandiose plans fall into two parts. First of all, he aims to corner the entire tropical-fish market. "I have the total approach," he says. "The books, the livestock, the accessories." A couple of weeks ago he spent $1 million to acquire the second largest aquarium manufacturing company in the world, and he is rolling his eyes at the largest. He is also aiming to up fish production on his Florida farms, because the size of the tropical-fish market is limited only by the number of fish available. Dr. Axelrod will go to any lengths to increase production. One day last winter he chanced to hear of a fisheries library for sale at $2,000, and, without inspecting a volume, he immediately offered to buy it. "Any one paper in it would be worth $2,000 to me if it gave a hint as to how I could get more fish production," he explains. "It may be that some little trick somebody found out a hundred years ago is just what I need." The doctor is always reading for clues and hints. Several years ago he was perusing an article on salt lakes and brine shrimp, Artemia salina, in a Russian fishery journal. The author noted that salt lakes having the right requirements for brine shrimp were found in Russia, Israel, California and Canada. At the mention of Canada, Dr. Axelrod leaped from his chair. He knew all about the lake in California; a fish-supply house in San Francisco had a monopoly on the brine-shrimp eggs, which are used as food for tropical fish. But Canada was something new. Discovery of brine-shrimp eggs there would be worth a fortune; the eggs bring more than caviar. The doctor ransacked reference literature, but he was unable to find the name of the salt lake. In fact, the best reference he could find mentioned one in Saskatchewan. He put in a call to a pet shop owner in Winnipeg, who was an amateur pilot. The pet shop owner agreed to fly up and down Saskatchewan looking for a lake with a white mark around the shore from salt. A month later he called the doctor. He had found not one lake but three, Manitou, Big Manitou and Little Manitou. Dr. Axelrod mushed north at once. The shores of the lakes were laden with brine-shrimp eggs. The doctor leased the lakes from the Canadian government, and then, in turn, he sold the lease to Wardley's, a tropical-fish supply house in New York, for a 5% royalty.
For the past year Dr. Axelrod has been reading and rereading Alfred P. Sloan's autobiography, My Years with General Motors. The doctor feels that Sloan (assisted by John McDonald) has written one of the great books of the age, and he has underlined a number of sentences that have special meaning to him and the future of TFH. Among them are: "There is no resting place for an enterprise in a competitive economy," and "The urge for competitive survival is the strongest of economic incentives." The doctor has been applying these maxims to TFH, because the capture of the entire tropical-fish market is only part one of his grandiose plans. Part two calls for TFH to take over the entire pet market within 10 years. In that time Dr. Axelrod foresees the gross of TFH swelling from $3 million this year to $20 million by 1970 and $100 million by 1975. "But it's not the money," says the doctor. "It's the power! The pet business is going through a fantastic boom that doesn't look like it's going to stop. The pet business is great."
As part two of his grandiose plan for cornering the pet market, Dr. Axelrod plans to introduce a new pet to supplant the hamster in public affection. The doctor is down on hamsters. "We need a small, hardy animal!" he exclaims, and he has that small, hardy animal all picked out. It is the Mongolian gerbil. "The trouble with the hamster is that it is nocturnal, it sometimes bites, and it stinks," says the doctor. "The Mongolian gerbil has a longer tail, softer fur, is not nocturnal, doesn't bite and doesn't stink. The only difficulty is getting them to breed. I'm going to work on that. Right now I'm trying to tie up all the Mongolian gerbils in the United States."
After getting all the Mongolian gerbils to breed, Dr. Axelrod plans to set up retail pet and hobby shops in department stores, five & tens and discount houses all across the country. This will give him complete control of the pet market. "The shops will do everything from selling model airplanes and fish tanks to living fish and birds and chameleons and what-have-you," he says. "It will have a garden center. It will sell books, plants, seeds and microscopes. Everything and anything!"
But for all the fish, all the Mongolian gerbils, and for all the money rolling in, Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod occasionally sinks into gloom. "I'd be happy to be a pauper," he says, "if I could play the fiddle as well as Jascha Heifetz."