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Fritz Haber

May 17, 2012

Fritz Haber is the Jekyll and Hyde of the chemistry world. He was a brilliant chemist and a total bastard. He was also surprisingly stupid at times and occasionally extraordinarily compassionate.

Haber is known to most of us for his work developing a synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, work that has fed millions as ammonia is used in fertilizers. This work gained him the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He also ran a research institute that was held up as an example of how to foster scientific innovation and high quality research. In Nazi Germany when his Jewish colleagues were forced to leave the institute he did his up-most to find jobs for them abroad before handing in his resignation.

Haber was also involved in more eccentric work in the form of  ‘gold from seawater’. This was a fruitless attempt to extract gold to fill the German coffers during the economic disaster Germany found itself in after the WWI. The concentration of gold turned out to be around 1,000 times lower than that necessary to make extraction profitable. But most, if not all, scientists pursue avenues of research that with hindsight look ridiculous. Haber’s name in history is assured because of his work on ammonia, the Haber process.

At school I found the Haber process to be the second most boring part of chemistry (after the spectacular dullness that was ‘the blast furnace’). Going back to it many years later when I was tutoring pupils through the chemistry syllabus I thought it was brilliant. Haber’s achievement of bringing together two gases which really aren’t interested in each other and forcing them to react is a fantastic example of some of the drier fundamental principles underlying chemical reactions. Trying to convey my enthusiasm met with a sceptical if not outright terrified response from my students. I tried again in a recent nitrogen blog but maybe  it really is boring and I should stop flogging a dead horse.

Ammonia is very useful as a fertiliser and has indirectly fed millions of people over the past 100 years. However, the major industrial use of ammonia in 1914 was for the production of gunpowder.  Without Haber’s discovery it has been suggested Germany’s contribution to the First World War would have lasted three months before they ran out of ammunition. In 1918 when Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, to the utter disgust of the British and French, the committee made a careful omission in their citation of Haber’s work on ammonia. Haber, in his Nobel lecture, forgot to mention  ammonia’s use in gunpowder or his work on chemical warfare. Did I mention the chemical warfare thing? This is the bit they left out of my chemistry lessons at school. Fritz Haber is also known as the ‘Father of Chemical Warfare’.

Haber lived by his motto “In peace for mankind, in war for the country!” Using his chemical knowledge Haber developed, and personally oversaw, the deployment of chlorine gas intended as a weapon of mass destruction. The first major release was on April 16th 1915 along a 6km stretch of the Western Front at Ypres. 167 tons of chlorine gas were released and the wind carried it towards the British and French trenches. There were 5,000 casualties and 1,000 deaths. Two days later a second release of chlorine under more favourable conditions lead to 10,000 casualties and 4,000 dead. The prevailing wind at Ypres was from the allies trenches toward the Germans which restricted the number of gas attacks the Germans could carry out. Unfortunately it simply gave the allies more time to develop their own chemical weapons and retaliate resulting in a hideous stalemate and mass slaughter on both sides. Haber was proud of his contributions to the war.

Clara, Haber’s wife did not share his enthusiasm for his military successes. Clara was also a chemist and must have been one of the first women to be awarded a PhD though her marriage to Fritz meant her only roles in life were mother and housewife. On the night Haber returned home to celebrate his promotion to Captain (a reward for the success of the gas attacks) Clara shot herself using Haber’s service pistol. Haber slept through the shots because of his use of sleeping tablets and it was their 13 year old son Hermann who found his dying mother. Unable to get permission to stay Haber left home for the Eastern Front the next day.

None of this seems to have put Haber off as he and his team went on to develop chemical agents such as phosgene and mustard gas.  Even after the war Haber continued his work in chemical warfare but under the guise of ‘fumigants’ to avoid contravening the treaty of Versailles.  His institute is thought to have developed the now notorious ‘Zyklon B’. The final twist in the tale is that Haber was Jewish (he converted to Christianity when he was 25) and was hounded out of Germany by the Nazi’s who also killed several of his relatives in their gas chambers using Haber’s own invention.



From → Blog, Chemistry

One Comment
  1. A fascinating story.

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