Richard Axel

October 25, 2006

This is among the many quite old posts I ought to have published long ago. But, here it goes – Last semester when I was still roaming around in you-know-where , I happen to meet a biology student(who had come there for a project) who was talking about C.elegans – the first time I had heard about it was may be in newsreports coming after 2004 Nobel – not that I remembered much about it, but I do vaguely recall hearing about it.

And soon enough, I saw a post in scieceblogs on Richard Axel which led me to his auto-biography at the nobel site. And Linda Buck, of course.

Anyway, some parts of the Axel’s autobio are really amusing. Just to give you a taste..

My plans were thwarted by an unfortunate war and to assure deferment from the military, I found myself a misplaced medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I entered medical school by default. I was a terrible medical student, pained by constant exposure to the suffering of the ill and thwarted in my desire to do experiments. My clinical incompetence was immediately recognized by the faculty and deans. I could rarely, if ever, hear a heart murmur, never saw the retina, my glasses fell into an abdominal incision and finally, I sewed a surgeon’s finger to a patient upon suturing an incision. It was during this period of incompetence and disinterest that I met another extremely close friend, Frederick Kass, now a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. Fred was an unusual medical student, a Texan with a degree in art history from Harvard, who remains a kindred spirit.

It was a difficult time, but I was both nurtured and protected by Howard Dintzis, Victor McCusick, and Julie Krevins, three professors at Johns Hopkins who somehow saw and respected my conflict. Without them, there is little question that I would not have been tolerated but they urged the deans to come up with a solution. I was allowed to graduate medical school early with an M.D. if I promised never to practice medicine on live patients. I returned to Columbia as an intern in Pathology where I kept this promise by performing autopsies. After a year in Pathology, I was asked by Don King, the Chairman of Pathology, never to practice on dead patients.


I found it strange and at some level difficult since I arrived at noon after all the parking spaces were occupied, left at midnight and accumulated an increasing number of parking tickets. In the midst of a molecular hybridization reaction, I was arrested by two FBI agents (the NIH is a federal reservation) for 100 summonses for parking violations.


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