Philip Handler was born in New York City. He received his bachelor's degree from the College of the City of New York and his Ph.D. in 1939 from the University of Illinois, studying with Herbert E. Carter. At Illinois, Handler developed an interest in nutritional research and chose to do his postdoctoral work at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, with William J. Dann, a nutritionist who studied human pellagra and the related disease in dogs, blacktongue. Handler and Dann established a link between the disease and metabolism of nicotinic acid. Handler's work on blacktongue and nicotinic acid was featured in a Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic (1). Handler, along with Jack Preiss, later determined the steps leading to NAD synthesis from nicotinic acid and ATP and showed that the degradation of NAD yields nicotinamide and adenosine diphosphoribose. These pathways are now called the Handler-Preiss cycle.
Handler remained at Duke University for the duration of his research career. He was promoted to associate professor of biochemistry in 1945, chairman of the Department of Biochemistry in 1950, and James B. Duke Professor in 1961. His own research activities encompassed a wide variety of subjects including coenzyme metabolism, renal hypertension, the mechanisms of hormone action, amino acid metabolism, biological oxidations, the mechanism of action of enzymes, and biochemical evolution. While at Duke, Handler also co-authored the textbook Principles of Biochemistry.
Handler was heavily involved in public service at a variety of academic institutions, societies, and government institutions. He served as president (1962) and secretary (1953–1958) of the American Society of Biological Chemists and chairman of the board of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. He was also appointed to the National Science Board and the President's Science Advisory Committee. In 1969, Handler was elected president of the National Academy of Sciences and during his 12 years in office he became a major spokesman for science in the United States and internationally. In recognition of his great contributions to science, Handler was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
1. Kresge, N., Simoni, R. D., and Hill, R. L. (2004) Blacktongue and nicotinic acid metabolism: Philip Handler. J. Biol. Chem. 279 (48)