FISHKEEPING NEWS

Nathan Hill looks back on the life of this ichthy­ol­o­gist, au­thor, ex­plorer, en­tre­pre­neur, phi­lan­thropist and pub­lisher with a con­tro­ver­sial his­tory.

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A new PFK award for shop staff and an obit­u­ary to a fishkeeping leg­end.

The au­thor and pub­lisher, Dr. Her­bert Richard Ax­el­rod, has died at the age of 89. He passed away at his Swiss home on May 15, 2017, with ten­ta­tive re­ports trick­ling out over the sub­se­quent days — ar­ti­cles from on­line vi­o­lin pub­li­ca­tions fol­lowed word-of-mouth an­nounce­ments be­tween friends of those close to him. In most camps, the news has been greeted with sad­ness, while some of those with whom he col­lided through­out his life have been less mo­rose: in death, as in life, Ax­el­rod is di­vi­sive.

Ax­el­rod’s his­tory is as coloured as it is cloudy. Sec­tions of his youth are un­doc­u­mented, while pe­ri­ods of his adult life lack cor­rob­o­ra­tion.

Early years

He was born June 7, 1927, the son of Rus­sian Jewish émi­grés. His mother worked with the US Navy Pro­cure­ment Of­fice, while the in­ter­ests of his fa­ther, a vi­o­lin and maths teacher, would have great ef­fect on Ax­el­rod’s later life choices.

Lit­tle is known of his school years, though there are hints of ad­ven­ture. At 10, it was claimed that he swam the 15-mile width of Lake On­tario; a sug­ges­tion of the der­ring-do that would drive him through life. His fam­ily wasn’t a wealthy one, and Ax­el­rod would gain a lit­tle spend­ing money catch­ing crabs and sell­ing them to Chi­nese laun­dry­men. He had an ob­ses­sion with pi­geons, the messy na­ture of which led to an­gry land­lords oust­ing the fam­ily from their lodg­ings.

Army life

At 17, Ax­el­rod joined an Army Spe­cialised Train­ing Pro­gram to study a pre-medicine course. By the age of 23 he was serv­ing in the ac­tive war in Korea, as­signed to a M*A*S*H unit.

It was dur­ing this time that one of his first, dra­matic claims arises. While in Ja­pan, drop­ping off blood and col­lect­ing whisky to trade with his fel­low ser­vice­men, he had a chance en­counter with an ichthy­ol­o­gist in a Tokyo li­brary, Dr. Tok­i­haro Abe. After Abe in­tro­duced him to a book by Em­peror Hiro­hito — an ar­dent marine bi­ol­o­gist — Ax­el­rod pointed out an er­ror in the sci­en­tific name of a nudi­branch. It turned out that Abe was well con­nected, and cleared a path­way for Ax­el­rod to meet the Em­peror Hiro­hito. On or­ders from his mil­i­tary com­man­der to re­spond to an in­vite from the Em­peror him­self, Ax­el­rod and the Em­peror spent a week to­gether col­lect­ing the nudi­branchs of which the Em­peror was fond.

Dur­ing his Korea years Ax­el­rod re­ceived an un­spec­i­fied wound to his hands, which in turn drove him to the ca­reer with which we fish­keep­ers mainly as­so­ciate him. In an at­tempt to re­store his dex­ter­ity, he took to typ­ing, di­rect­ing his words at a sub­ject he knew and loved — fishkeeping.

Re­turn­ing from Korea, Ax­el­rod even­tu­ally com­pleted stud­ies for his PH.D in Bio­statis­tics, to join his Mas­ter’s de­gree in Math­e­mat­ics. Dur­ing this time, he claimed to have at­tended lessons given by Al­bert Ein­stein, who was at that time teach­ing lat­tice the­ory at nearby Prince­ton. The timescales and ge­ogra­phies of the par­ties in­volved make this more than plau­si­ble.

Magazines and books

In tan­dem with study, he started to pro­duce the mag­a­zine Trop­i­cal Fish Hob­by­ist, first pub­lished in Septem­ber 1952 — and by 1955 he had founded TFH Pub­li­ca­tions Inc., a huge pub­lisher of pet-keep­ing books and magazines.

Among his ti­tles, sev­eral of which are still found as ref­er­ence books sold and used by re­tail­ers around the world, is his Hand­book of Trop­i­cal Aquarium Fishes, which may rep­re­sent one of the most suc­cess­ful fish books of all time, sell­ing well in ex­cess of one mil­lion copies glob­ally. Dr. Ax­el­rod’s At­las of Fresh­wa­ter Aquarium Fishes, last printed in 2004, prob­a­bly still ranks as the most recog­nis­able fish ti­tle for aquar­ists.

In­ven­tions and dis­cov­er­ies

Pub­lish­ing wasn’t Ax­el­rod’s only source of in­come. As time pro­gressed he in­vested in fish farm­ing, own­ing five trop­i­cal farms near Tampa, as well as in­vent­ing scores of prod­ucts we take for granted to­day. Freeze dried worms, for ex­am­ple, were orig­i­nally an Ax­el­rod con­cept. Dog own­ers may be sur­prised to find that the Ny­labone their pets are chew­ing was also one of his cre­ations.

TFH also af­forded Ax­el­rod some per­sonal in­dul­gences, such as the sis­ter pub­lish­ing com­pany Pan­ganini­ana, pro­duc­ing mu­si­calthemed pub­li­ca­tions that al­lowed an out­let for Ax­el­rod’s love of vi­o­lins. Through­out his life, he was an am­a­teur vi­o­lin­ist, as well as a col­lec­tor and trader of rare vi­o­lins.

The run­away suc­cess of TFH Pub­li­ca­tions af­forded Ax­el­rod free time for ex­plo­ration. With en­ergy to spare and am­ple fund­ing, he ven­tured around the world, start­ing with the rain­forests of South Amer­ica. While seek­ing out fish, Ax­el­rod still found time to brush shoul­ders with ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters. In 1960, he took the for­mer King of Bel­gium, Leopold III, on a spear-fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion into the Ama­zon.

Some­where in the late 1950s he pro­cured Jaguars for Walt Dis­ney. The Jaguar brief was for two black cats — po­ten­tially those seen in Dis­ney’s ‘Jun­gle Cat’ (1959), but given that Ax­el­rod couldn’t find any truly black jaguars,

Lake Te­bera rain­bow, Me­lan­o­tae­nia her­ber­tax­el­rodi.

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