Celebrating 150 Years of Excellence in Science

Philip Handler

1969-1981 NAS President

Philip Handler (1917–1981), a native New Yorker, was not only a dedicated scientist, but displayed an unusually high degree of sensitivity in his responses to situations involving conflicting opinions. He was ideally suited to lead the Academy through the tempestuous political climate associated with the war in Vietnam to which many members of the academic community were strongly opposed. He succeeded in bringing an essential degree of unity to the membership by emphasizing the great need for universal support of the principle of human rights. He delivered many eloquent addresses on this topic from the podium of the new auditorium as well as at many other places at home and abroad. To express his own general range of sympathy with the spirit of those who opposed the war in Vietnam, he did not exercise his statutory seat on the Defense Science Board.

This is not to say that Handler's period in office was an easy one. A small but highly activist group of members of the Academy harried him incessantly in an attempt to have the Academy express open opposition to the actions of the government but he was not prepared to do this. Fortunately, the majority of the membership supported him.

When Handler retired in 1981, there was a move on the part of his justly admiring friends to name the auditorium after him. President Frank Press, who followed Handler, emphasized that the funds that were raised to construct the auditorium had been carried out in the name of Hugh Dryden so that if any name were used, it would necessarily be Dryden's. A symbol of Dryden's role is provided by a bronze copy of his bust that is situated in a special display room at the rear upper level of the auditorium.

Since his family had limited means during the Depression, Handler entered City College in New York in 1933 and graduated three years later. His age was out of phase with that of most of his classmates so he found time to engage in self analysis and speculate on plans for the future. One of the members of the faculty of the college who noted that Handler was excellent in chemistry recommended that he enter graduate school at the University of Illinois, which had a very strong department in organic chemistry. Arrangements were made whereby he received a paying half-time position as a chemical assistant in the School of Agriculture and was allowed to register as a graduate student in the department of chemistry. He soon attached himself to a new young member of the faculty, Herbert E. Carter, who was engaged in the field of biochemistry, which was beginning to attract much attention. He and Carter, who quickly came to admire Handler's many gifts, worked well together and became close, lifetime friends. The peripheral experience he gained working in agricultural chemistry added an important practical twist to Handler's education.

Handler completed graduate work in 1939. Since any thought of a fellowship abroad seemed impractical as war clouds gathered, he accepted a position at Duke University, which proved to be his base for forty-two years. He developed deep roots there, but also became a prominent figure on both the national and international scenes. He was particularly admired in Washington and was frequently asked to testify before congressional committees on scientific matters related to his areas of professional involvement. He was the very eloquent “Dr. Science” to many on the Hill long before he became president of the Academy. James Shannon, the head of NIH, must have appreciated his fine support.

Handler was elected president in 1968 but had to delay taking office for a year for personal reasons, during which Seitz remained in the chair. In his twelve years of service, Handler continued the evolution of the Academy's activities on the national and international frontiers of science that had started in the Bronk era. He received many honors and became a celebrated figure in the larger Washington community. He accepted membership on the board of what had become The Rockefeller University.

Copernicus Celebration
The semi-millennial anniversary of Copernicus' birth (1473) occurred during Handler's period in office. He made certain that the event was celebrated appropriately during a yearlong American festival.

He also commissioned a life-sized statue of Albert Einstein by a sculptor devoted at the time to a special style of contemporary art. It displays the immortal genius in his very late years seated before a small synthetic pool, presumably pondering the mysteries of our universe. The representation of him is similar to those commonly seen in many advertisements in newspapers, magazines or billboards in United States promoting some commercial device or plan. It probably is not one that would have been selected by a group of physicists familiar with his appearance during his most creative three decades that began in his mid-twenties. The statue is however very popular with the general public in United States since the representation is one of a type they see frequently and is fixed in their minds. It is situated on the front lawn close to Constitution Avenue and serves as a temporary pausing point for the innumerable tour buses that circulate about Washington in season.

The Oklo “Natural” Nuclear Reactor
In 1972, soon after Handler took office, a group of French mining engineers made a most interesting discovery while exploiting a uranium mine on the Oklo River in Gabon, Africa. They concluded that the uranium deposit had been the site of a spontaneous nuclear chain reaction some 1.8 billion years ago when the relative concentration of uranium 235 isotope was about four times greater that at present. Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg, the former director of Oak Ridge National laboratory has made a special analysis of the implications of this discovery, Nature 266(1977): 206.

Toward the end of his terms in office, Handler contracted lymphoma and apparently tried some form of self-treatment. By the time his medical colleagues appreciated the situation and insisted that he be placed in the hands of cancer specialists, it was too late.

Continue reading next chapter: Frank Press

Return to: A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863 - 2005

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