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