Image of a cell

Philip Handler

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For his outstanding contributions to biochemical research, resulting in significant contributions to mankind, including research that led to a clearer understanding of pellagra, and for his national leadership in furthering the state of American science.

A brilliant scientist known for his study of diseases and new treatments for burn victims, Philip Handler is perhaps equally famous in the science community for his eloquence and ability to bridge even the most bitter of divides.

Handler spent the first part of his career studying the varied causes of diseases, notably pellagra, which can lead to disfigurement and decreased motor skills. But later in his life he spent 12 years as the president of the National Academy of Sciences, retiring in 1981. During that period, which included the divisive war in Vietnam, Handler’s delicate diplomacy is credited with helping the academy become an influential source of scientific knowledge and resources.

The academy credits Handler with steering the body through the tumultuous period of the Vietnam War, unifying and strengthening its membership and becoming a familiar voice on scientific matters before Congress.

Handler, who earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Illinois, spent much of his career at Duke University. In addition to his breakthrough research on pellagra, Handler also developed new burn treatments that helped numerous soldiers in World War II. He was elected president of the academy in 1968.

By Robert Warren