Fritz Haber

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Fritz Haber
Fritz Haber.png
Born (1868-12-09)9 December 1868
Breslau, Prussia
Died 29 January 1934(1934-01-29) (aged 65)
Basel, Switzerland
Nationality German
Fields Physical chemistry
Institutions Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
University of Karlsruhe
Alma mater University of Heidelberg, Humboldt University of Berlin
Technical University of Berlin
Doctoral advisor Robert Bunsen
Known for Haber process
Born-Haber cycle
Haber–Weiss reaction
Chemical warfare
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1918)
Rumford Medal (1932)
Spouse Clara Immerwahr (1901-1915; her death; 1 child)
Charlotte Nathan (1917-1927; divorced; 2 children)

Fritz Haber (German: [ˈhaːbɐ]; 9 December 1868 – 29 January 1934) was a German chemist of Jewish origin, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his development for synthesizing ammonia, important for fertilizers and explosives. The food production for half the world's current population depends on this method for producing fertilizer. Haber, along with Max Born, proposed the Born–Haber cycle as a method for evaluating the lattice energy of an ionic solid.

Notoriously, Haber is also remembered to history as the "father of chemical warfare" for his years of pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, as well as his later founding chairmanship of the Degesch Corporation, which (two decades after Haber's term) knowingly produced the hydrogen cyanide-based Zyklon B gas used to kill millions in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

Early life, education and early career[edit]

Haber was born in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland), into a Hasidic Jewish family.[citation needed] He was the son of Paula and Siegfried Haber, who were first cousins.[1][full citation needed] His family was one of the oldest families of that town.[2] Haber later converted from strict Judaism to Lutheranism.[3] His mother died during childbirth.[4] His father was a well-known merchant in the town.[citation needed] From 1886 until 1891, he studied at the University of Heidelberg under Robert Bunsen, at the University of Berlin{citation needed} (today the Humboldt University of Berlin) in the group of A. W. Hofmann, and at the Technical College of Charlottenburg (today the Technical University of Berlin) under Carl Liebermann.[citation needed] Before starting his own academic career, he worked at his father's chemical business and in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with Georg Lunge.[citation needed]

Nobel Prize[edit]

During his time at University of Karlsruhe from 1894 to 1911, Fritz Haber 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 pressure.[5]

He was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work (he actually received the award in 1919).[6]

The Haber–Bosch process was a milestone in industrial chemistry, because it divorced the production of nitrogen products, such as fertilizer, explosives e.g. on the base of ammonium nitrate, chemical feedstocks, from natural deposits, especially sodium nitrate (caliche), of which Chile was a major (and almost unique) producer. Naturally extracted nitrate production in Chile fell from 2.5 million tons (employing 60,000 workers and selling at $45/ton) in 1925 to just 800,000 tons, produced by 14,133 workers, and selling at $19/ton in 1934.[7] The annual world production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is currently more than 100 million tons. The food base of half of the current world population is based on the Haber–Bosch process.[8]

He was also active in the research of combustion reactions, the separation of gold from sea water, adsorption effects, electrochemistry, and free radical research (see Fenton's reagent). A large part of his work from 1911 to 1933 was done at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Elektrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem. In 1953, this institute was renamed for him. He is sometimes credited, incorrectly, with first synthesizing MDMA (which was first synthesized by Merck KGaA chemist Anton Köllisch in 1912).[9][10]

World War I[edit]

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 adsorbent 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 despite its proscription by the Hague Convention of 1907 (to which Germany was a signatory).[citation needed] Future Nobel laureates James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn served as gas troops in Haber's unit.

Gas warfare in World War I was, in a sense, the war of the chemists, with Haber pitted against French Nobel laureate chemist Victor Grignard. Regarding war and peace, Haber once said, "During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country." This was an example of the ethical dilemmas facing chemists at that time.[11]

Haber was a patriotic German who was proud of his service during World War I, for which he was decorated. He was even given the rank of captain by the Kaiser, rare 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. During the 1920s, scientists working at his institute developed the cyanide gas formulation Zyklon A, which was used as an insecticide, especially as a fumigant in grain stores.[12]


In the 1920s, Haber searched exhaustively for a method to extract gold from sea water, and published a number of scientific papers on the subject. After years of research, he concluded that the concentration of gold dissolved in sea water was much lower than those reported by earlier researchers, and that gold extraction from sea water was uneconomic.[13]

Haber's genius was recognized by the Nazis, who offered him special funding to continue his research on weapons.[citation needed] As a result of fellow Jewish scientists having already been prohibited from working in that field, he left Germany in 1933. He moved to Cambridge, England, along with his assistant J J Weiss, for a few months, during which time Ernest Rutherford pointedly refused to shake hands with him, due to his involvement in poison gas warfare.

Personal life and family[edit]

Clara Immerwahr

Haber married Clara Immerwahr in 1901. Clara was also a chemist and the first woman to earn a PhD at the University of Breslau. She was totally opposed to Haber's work in chemical warfare. On 2 May 1915, following an argument with Haber over the subject, she committed suicide in their garden shooting herself in the heart with his service revolver, probably in response to his having personally overseen the first successful use of chlorine at the Second Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915.[14][15] Nevertheless Haber left that same morning for the Eastern Front to oversee gas release against the Russians.[16] Haber left behind his grieving 13-year-old son Hermann, who had been the one to discover his dying mother.[17]

Haber married his second wife, Charlotte Nathan, in 1917. The couple had two children. Like Haber, both of his wives had been Jewish-born converts to Christianity.[18]


The grave of Fritz Haber and Clara Haber (born Immerwahr) in the Hörnli graveyard of Basel, Switzerland

In 1933, during Haber's brief sojourn in England, Chaim Weizmann offered him the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute (now the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot, in Mandatory Palestine. He accepted, and left for the Middle East in January 1934, after recovering from a heart attack. His ill health overpowered him and on 29 January 1934, at the age of 65, he died of heart failure, mid-journey, in a Basel hotel.[19] He was cremated and his ashes, together with Clara's, were buried in Basel's Hörnli Cemetery.[20] He bequeathed his extensive private library to the Sieff Institute.

After his death, Haber's immediate family left Germany. His second wife, Charlotte, with their children, settled in England. Haber's son from his first marriage, Hermann, emigrated to the United States during World War II. He committed suicide in 1946 because of his shame over his father's chemical warfare work.[21]

Members of Haber's extended family[who?] died in concentration camps.[citation needed] One of his children, Ludwig ("Lutz") Fritz Haber (1921–2004), became an eminent historian of chemical warfare in World War I and published a book called The Poisonous Cloud (1986).[22]


Haber received much criticism for his involvement in the development of chemical weapons in pre-World War II Germany, both from contemporaries and from modern-day scientists.[23] The research results show the ambivalence of his scientific activity: on the one hand, development of ammonia synthesis for the manufacture of explosives and of a technical process for the industrial manufacture and use of poison gas in warfare; but on the other hand, development of an industrial process without which the food supply for today's world population would be greatly diminished.

Dramatic treatment[edit]

A fictional description of Haber's life, and in particular his longtime relationship with Albert Einstein, appears in Vern Thiessen's 2003 play Einstein's Gift. Thiessen describes Haber as a tragic figure who strives unsuccessfully throughout his life to evade both his Jewish ancestry and the moral implications of his scientific contributions.

BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play has broadcast two plays on the life of Fritz Haber. This is the description of the first[24] from the Diversity Website:

The second was entitled "The Greater Good" and was first broadcast on 23 October 2008.[25] It was directed by Celia de Wolff and written by Justin Hopper, and starred Anton Lesser as Haber. It explored his work on gas warfare during the First World War and the strain it put on his wife Clara (Lesley Sharp), concluding with her suicide and its cover-up by the authorities. Other cast included Dan Starkey as Haber's research associate Otto Sackur, Stephen Critchlow as Colonel Peterson, Conor Tottenham as Haber's son Hermann, Malcolm Tierney as General Falkenhayn and Janice Acquah as Zinaide.

In 2008, a short film entitled Haber depicted Fritz Haber's decision to embark on the gas warfare program and his relationship with his wife. The film was written and directed by Daniel Ragussis.[26][27]

In November 2008 Haber was again played by Anton Lesser in Einstein and Eddington.[28]

In January 2012, Haber was featured on an episode of Radiolab.[29]

In 2012, Haber was featured on an episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True.

In December 2013 Haber was the subject of a BBC World Service radio programme: "Why has one of the world's most important scientists been forgotten?".[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Nobel biography of Fritz Haber
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Original Patent for Synthesis of Ammonia". European Patent Office. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ S. Collier and W. F. Sater. (2004). A history of Chile, 1808-2002 Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ Jörg Albrecht: Brot und Kriege aus der Luft. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung 41, 2008, S. 77 (Data from "Nature Geosience").
  9. ^ "...MDMA was actually first synthesized by Fritz Haber in 1892...". Ask Erowid. 
  10. ^ Benzenhöfer, U; Passie, T (2006). "The early history of "Ecstasy"". Der Nervenarzt 77 (1): 95–6, 98–9. doi:10.1007/s00115-005-2001-y. PMID 16397805. 
  11. ^ "SCIENCE: A Many-Splendored Thing [eBook]". Retrieved 1 September 2011. 
  12. ^ M. Szöllösi-Janze (2001). "Pesticides and war: the case of Fritz Haber". European Review 9 (01): 97–108. doi:10.1017/S1062798701000096. 
  13. ^ Morris Goran, The Story or Fritz Haber, Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1967, p.91-98.
  14. ^ Hobbes, Nicholas (2003). Essential Militaria. Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1-84354-229-2. 
  15. ^ A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments - H. P. Albarelli - 1 July 2009 - ISBN 0-9777953-7-3
  16. ^ Huxtable, R. J. (2002). "Reflections: Fritz Haber and the ambiguity of ethics". Proceedings Western Pharmacology Soc 45: 1–3. Retrieved 2 April 2014. 
  17. ^ Stern, Fritz; Charles, Daniel; Nasser, Latif; Kaufman, Fred (9 January 2012). How Do You Solve a Problem Like Fritz Haber?. Interview with Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich. Radiolab. WNYC. New York, NY. Retrieved 2 April 2014. 
  18. ^ [2]
  19. ^ [3]
  20. ^ A photograph of their gravestone in Hörnli Cemetery, Basel can be found in the book written by Stolzenberg.
  21. ^ A Terrible Mistake:The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments - H. P. Albarelli - 1 July 2009 - ISBN 0-9777953-7-3 - p. 37
  22. ^ "Lutz F. Haber (1921–2004)". University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 
  23. ^ Between Genius and Genocide: The Tragedy of Fritz Haber, Father of Chemical Warfare by Daniel Charles
  24. ^ "Bread from the Air, Gold from the Sea". Archives of Anthony Phillips (who composed the music). 
  25. ^ "Afternoon Play, The Greater Good". BBC. 
  26. ^ "Haber (2008)". The Internet Movie Database. 2008. Retrieved 18 September 2008. 
  27. ^ Trailer for Haber short film
  28. ^ "Einstein and Eddington (2008) (TV)". The Internet Movie Database. 2008. Retrieved 18 September 2008. 
  29. ^ "The Bad Show". Radiolab. 2012. Retrieved 12 January 2012. 
  30. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Albarelli JR., H. P.: A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments - Trine Day LLC, 1st ed., 2009, ISBN 0-9777953-7-3
  • Bernstein, Barton J.: "Birth of the U.S. biological warfare program". Scientific American 256: 116 - 121, 1987.
  • Daniel Charles, Master mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare (New York: Ecco, 2005), ISBN 0-06-056272-2.
  • Dietrich Stoltzenberg, Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew: A Biography (Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2005), ISBN 0-941901-24-6.
  • Geissler, Erhard: Biologische Waffen, nicht in Hitlers Arsenalen. Biologische und Toxin-Kampfmittel in Deutschland von 1915 - 1945. LIT-Verlag, Berlin-Hamburg-Münster, 2nd ed., 1999. ISBN 3-8258-2955-3.
  • Geissler, Erhard: "Biological warfare activities in Germany 1923 - 1945". In: Geissler, Erhard and Moon, John Ellis van Courtland, eds., Biological warfare from the Middle Ages to 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-19-829579-0.
  • Maddrell, Paul: Spying on Science: Western Intelligence in Divided Germany 1945–1961. Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-19-926750-2.
  • Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production (2001) ISBN 0-262-19449-X
  • Thomas Hager, The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler (2008) ISBN 978-0-307-35178-4.

External links[edit]