Haber, Fritz (1868–1934)

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HABER, FRITZ (1868–1934)


German chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

Fritz Haber is regarded as "the father of modern chemical warfare" (Lepick, p. 67). At the time he offered his services to the kaiser's army, he was already a famous scientist. From a wealthy Jewish family in Silesia—his father traded in chemical products and indigo—he studied at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. He defended his thesis in organic chemistry there in 1891. The following year, he was baptized at the Protestant church in Jena. From 1894, after an unsuccessful spell in his father's business, he enrolled at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, where he was made a freelance lecturer (Privatdozent) two years later, having qualified by defending a thesis on the combustion of hydrocarbons. He also obtained his first professorship there in 1906. Meanwhile, in 1901 he married Clara Immerwahr, who was also a chemist. The couple had a child, Hermann, in 1902, but relations between the spouses deteriorated.

In the years from 1904 to 1910, he developed, in collaboration with the firm BASF—and in particular its head engineer Carl Bosch (a Nobel Prize winner in 1931)—procedures for the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere and the catalytic synthesis of ammonia (the Haber-Bosch process), one of the first outcomes of which was the manufacture of industrial fertilizer. It was this discovery that won him the Nobel Prize and brought him substantial wealth as a result of the very rapid industrial applications of the procedure.

In 1911 he became director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. Just prior to this, while still in Karlsruhe, he had made the acquaintance of Albert Einstein (1879–1955) at a conference. A deep friendship developed between the two scientists, but they held radically opposing philosophical views during the First World War. Whereas Einstein had pacifist leanings from the outset of the war, Haber participated enthusiastically in the war effort—not without first having signed the "Appeal to the Civilized World" made in 1914 by ninety-three German intellectuals. The following year, by turning the faucets of chlorine cylinders under pressure, he opened the Pandora's box of modern chemical warfare at Langemarck. On 22 April 1915 Haber supervised the attack in person, and he had to overcome the misgivings even of certain officers. This attack unquestionably constituted a violation of the 1899 Hague Conventions.

In 1916 he ran the chemical warfare unit of the German army and had several hundred researchers working for him, including many brilliant young scientists. At that time there were very few like Max Born, who refused to work with him. His teams had already developed a gas mask and gas shells that were designed to replace the cylinders. In 1917 they developed yperite (or mustard gas), a highly corrosive gas for use in warfare. Haber remarried in 1917. Clara, who was opposed to his work, had committed suicide in May 1915, which had not deterred Haber from pursuing his chosen path.

The announcement in 1919 that the 1918 Nobel Prize was being awarded to Haber provoked an angry response in the former enemy countries. Haber subsequently featured on the first list of the people being pursued for war crimes in 1920, but his name was no longer included in a revised version of the list. In Germany, however, he renewed contact with those who had opposed him during the war, such as Einstein and Max Born, and assumed an increasingly important role in the nation's research. He thus devoted his efforts to reestablishing his country's scientific reputation and its international relations within the scientific field. Thanks to the spirit of the Locarno Pact (1925), he even became an honorary member of the French and English chemical societies and was elected to major science academies (in the United States and the USSR).

In 1933, after the Nazis took power, Haber resigned his post at the Institute in protest at the implementation of anti-Semitic laws. He then emigrated. On his way through Switzerland, Haber met the chemist and Zionist leader Chaim Azriel Weizmann (1874–1952), who had offered him a post in Palestine. After an initial rejection, Haber seemed to accept the post. However, at the invitation of William Jackson Pope (1870–1939), he then went to Cambridge but did not receive the friendliest of welcomes. In 1934, while on vacation in Switzerland and on the point of leaving for Palestine, Haber died of a heart attack on 29 January in Basel. The historian Fritz Stern discovered that a year after Haber's death, his son, who had settled in France in 1927, had made a request for naturalization, which met with constant rejection by the French authorities because of his father's activities during the First World War.

See alsoScience; Technology; World War I.


Lepick, Olivier. La Grande Guerre chimique, 1914–1918. Paris, 1998.

Goran, Morris Herbert. The Story of Fritz Haber. Norman, Okla., 1967.

Stern, Fritz. Einstein's German World. Princeton, N.J., 1999.

Stolzenberg, Dietrich . Fritz Haber: Chemiker, Nobelpreisträger, Deutscher, Jude; eine Biographie. Weinheim, Germany, 1994.

Nicolas BeauprÉ