Fritz Haber

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Fritz Haber in 1918.
Fritz Haber in 1918.

Fritz Haber (December 9, 1868January 29, 1934) was a German chemist, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his development of synthetic ammonia, important for fertilizers and explosives. He is also credited as the "father of chemical warfare" for his work developing and deploying chlorine and other poison gases during World War I; this role is thought to have provoked his wife to commit suicide. Despite his contributions to the German war effort, Haber was forced to emigrate from Germany in 1934 by the Nazis because of his Jewishness; many of his relatives were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps by another of his creations, Zyklon B. He died in the process of emigration.


He was born in Breslau, Germany and from 1886 until 1891 he studied at the University of Heidelberg under Robert Bunsen, at the University of Berlin in the group of A. W. Hoffmann, and at the Technical College of Charlottenburg (today the Technical University of Berlin) under Carl Liebermann. He married Clara Immerwahr in 1901. Before starting his own academic career he worked at his father's chemical business and in the Institute of Technology in Zürich with Georg Lunge. During his time in Karlsruhe from 1894 until 1911 he and Carl Bosch developed the Haber process, which is the catalytic formation of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen under conditions of high temperature and high pressure. In 1918 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. The Haber-Bosch process was a milestone in industrial chemistry, because it divorced the production of nitrogen products, such as fertilizer, explosives and chemical feedstocks, from natural deposits, especially sodium nitrate ('Caliche'), of which Chile was a major producer. The sudden availability of cheap nitrogenous fertilizer is credited with averting a Malthusian catastrophe, or population crisis.

He was also active in the research of combustion reactions, the separation of gold from sea water, adsorption effects, and electrochemistry. A large part of his work from 1911 to 1933 was done at the Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem. Haber played a major role in the development of chemical warfare in World War I. Part of this work included the development of gas masks with absorbent filters. In addition to leading the teams developing chlorine gas and other deadly gases for use in trench warfare, Haber was on hand personally to aid in its release. Gas warfare in WWI was, in a sense, the war of the chemists, with Haber pitted against French Nobel laureate chemist Victor Grignard. His wife opposed his work on poison gas and committed suicide with his service weapon at a dinner party in tribute to his having personally overseen the first successful use of chlorine in Ypres. She shot herself in the heart, and died in the morning. That same morning, Haber left for the Eastern Front to oversee gas release against the Russians. Haber was a patriotic German who was proud of his service in World War I, for which he was decorated. He was even given the rank of Captain by the Kaiser, a rare thing for a scientist too old to enlist in military service.

In his studies of the effects of poison gas, Haber noted that exposure to a low concentration of a poisonous gas for a long time often had the same effect (death) as exposure to a high concentration for a short time. He formulated a simple mathematical relationship between the gas concentration and the necessary exposure time. This relationship became known as Haber's rule. Haber defended gas warfare against accusations that it was inhumane, saying that death was death, by whatever means it was inflicted. In the 1920s he developed the cyanide gas formulation Zyklon B, which was used as an insecticide, especially as a fumigant in grain stores, and also later in the concentration camps.

Being Jewish, he was forced to emigrate by the Nazis in 1934. He struggled to cope with the new reality that his enormous contributions to German industry were not enough to prevent his vilification by the Nazi regime. Despite having converted from Judaism in an effort to be completely accepted and despite his uncompromising patriotism to Germany, in the end, his Jewish heritage required that he flee Germany for a position in Rehovot, Palestine (now Israel). He died in Basel, on the way, after an illness.

Despite losing his wife because of the controversy over poison gas, other members of his family were killed in the concentration camps using his invention, Zyklon B.

Further reading

  • Charles Daniel, Master mind: the rise and fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel laureate who launched the age of chemical warfare (New York: Ecco, 2005), ISBN 0060562722.

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