Haber, Fritz

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Breslau, Germany [now Wroc≢aw, Poland], 9 December 1868; d. Basel, Switzerland, 29 January 1934)

chemistry. For the original article on Haber see DSB, vol. 5.

From the many new sources that have become available since the first edition of the DSB, a much richer, more nuanced portrait of Haber has emerged, revealing a twentieth-century scientist with many faces. These include Haber the academic scientist and industrial pioneer, the benefactor of humanity and creator of destructive weapons, the science organizer and military advisor, and not least the assimilated Jew and German patriot who nevertheless died in exile. To elucidate the complexity that characterized Haber, this postscript will focus on three critical events in Haber’s life and their consequences: the ammonia synthesis that made him famous, World War I that made him infamous, and finally the crisis of 1933, which hastened his death. In the process it will at times correct information in the original DSB article.

The Path to Synthetic Ammonia . Unlike most of the German physical chemists in the generation after Wilhelm Ostwald, Fritz Haber did not work with Ostwald; indeed, he followed a convoluted path into the field. His first exposure to gas chemistry, which would become a major focus of his research, came from three semesters with Robert Bunsen in Heidelberg, but Bunsen did not supervise doctoral work. Haber took a doctorate in the then-dominant field of organic chemistry from the University of Berlin (the Charlottenburg Technische Hochschule [College of Technology], where he had done his research, could not yet award doctorates in 1891).

Organic chemistry did not inspire him, however, either in an academic or an industrial setting (including the business owned by his father, with whom he had a stormy relationship). He tried repeatedly but failed to get a position with Ostwald in Leipzig, and he clashed at times with Ostwald’s heir apparent as leader of physical chemistry in Germany, Walther Nernst. Haber did, however, cultivate friendships with other young physical chemists, who helped him work his way into the field.

In 1894 Haber found his first paid assistantship in the Karlsruhe College of Technology chemistry department, then led by two relatively liberal men who were experts in oil (Carl Engler) and gas (Hans Bunte). Bunte encouraged Haber to develop a wide-ranging research program, beginning with hydrocarbon gas combustion analysis and going on to electrochemistry and thermodynamics (see details in the original DSB article).

Haber was clearly energized by challenges that had defeated others, particularly technical problems of immense practical significance, whose solution required a sophisticated application of theoretical knowledge as well as tremendous concentration and hard work. This is what drew him to gas reactions, then on the forefront of research in thermodynamics, and eventually to the ammonia synthesis, which Ostwald himself had failed to solve. Despite Nernst’s humiliating public criticism of Haber and Robert Le Rossignol’s early results in 1907, they went on to perfect the process, while Nernst abandoned it as technically impracticable. By 1908 Haber had a consulting relationship with the BASF (Badische Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik) chemical corporation, which purchased the rights to his high-pressure, catalytic ammonia synthesis in 1909 at the recommendation of Carl Bosch, who directed

the technical development of what became known as the Haber-Bosch process. Synthetic ammonia—“fixed” nitrogen—would eliminate the threat of mass starvation from the exhaustion of Chilean nitrate deposits as global demand for nitrogen-based fertilizers escalated; it also meant replacing an import by a product made in Germany.

Haber’s ammonia synthesis caught the attention of the wealthy Berlin businessman Leopold Koppel, who in 1910 offered to endow a prestigious new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for research in physical chemistry and electrochemistry, specifying him as director. This brought Haber in 1912 to the Berlin suburb of Dahlem, where his new friend, the organic chemist Richard Willstätter, was senior scientific member (not codirector) of the neighboring Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry.

Haber as Military Scientist . After World War I began in 1914 Haber transformed himself with no apparent qualms from benefactor of humanity to weapons scientist and advisor to the Prusso-German Army on chemical questions. His mediation helped initiate a series of major, government-subsidized expansions of BASF’s ammonia plants. In 1918 the fixed nitrogen thus produced, about 90,000 tons (of a planned capacity approaching 300,000 tons), would be the principal source of nitric acid for German munitions (whereas fertilizers came from other sources). Haber earned fifteen marks (about $3.50 in 1918 dollars) in royalties per ton, wealth that would, however, shrink in the postwar inflation.

Haber’s involvement in chemical warfare began in late 1914, complementing his efforts to expand nitrate production. As an alternative to nitrogen-based explosives, he proposed and directed the first large-scale release of chlorine gas at Ypres on the Western Front on 22 (not 11) April 1915. Although the attack brought only temporary success, gas (with its dramatic effects on unprotected troops) seemed promising; Haber was commissioned a captain with responsibility for the further development of chemical weapons. This led to an office for chemical questions and, in November 1916, the creation of Chemical Section A 10 within the General War Department of the Prussian War Ministry (which effectively served as Imperial War Ministry until 1918). Haber thus became the first scientist in charge of a section in the War Ministry, and he worked toward the further mobilization of German scientists for military purposes. Continuing to direct his own research institute, Haber converted and expanded it into a research and development center for chemical agents (mainly used in shells rather than clouds after 1916) and protective measures. By 1917 Haber’s organization had 9 sections, employing 150 academics and about 1,300 others. Despite his rare ability to focus on, grasp, and quickly deal with a wide variety of scientific and technical problems, he was later criticized for a professorial reluctance to delegate authority, as well as for inadequate field testing of chemical agents developed in his institute. Allied countermeasures eventually neutralized all of Haber’s initiatives, and the hoped-for breakthrough never occurred.

As with ammonia, the war’s challenges energized Haber, who drove himself relentlessly. Then in his late forties, Haber evidently enjoyed the uniform and rank (which a German Jew could not hold in peacetime) and even the occasional danger at the front, so unlike his previous academic world. Unfortunately the war also heightened his isolation from his family. Since his marriage to Clara Immerwahr in 1901 he had increasingly relegated her to a domestic role (despite her doctorate in chemistry) while neglecting their son. In deepening depression, she saw his scientific successes coming at the cost of his (and her) humanity. The end came soon after his return from Ypres in 1915, when she committed suicide—a tragedy that many have seen as a protest against chemical warfare, despite the lack of conclusive evidence. Two years later Haber remarried, but his much younger bride, Charlotte Nathan, ultimately proved to be too different from him for the marriage to last.

Following Germany’s defeat, Haber had a near breakdown, then fled to Switzerland for a few months to escape possible prosecution for his chemical warfare work. An Allied tribunal never materialized, but ironically the same year brought him news that he would receive a Nobel Prize for the ammonia synthesis. Despite criticism, Haber never expressed any regret for his military service; indeed, he continued to serve the military, along with his other postwar activities mentioned in the original DSB article, including the initially secret project to extract gold from the sea in the vain hope of paying German reparations. First he briefly administered economic demobilization in chemicals, a task probably too business-oriented and political for him. Until 1926 he also played a mediating and advisory role for the new German Ministry of National Defense (Reichswehr) in covert efforts to evade the Versailles Peace Treaty through chemical warfare projects in Spain and Soviet Russia as well as Germany. After the Allies uncovered and suppressed some of these activities, Haber apparently lost his influence with the military. By then, however, he had helped to create a government-regulated civilian pesticide company staffed by chemical warfare veterans and using a cyanide-based product, Zyklon B, later used for mass murder in Auschwitz. It was derived from a wartime agent developed by Haber’s own institute.

Postwar Teaching and Scientific Organizing . Haber was a gifted teacher and scientific leader, much admired by his students and assistants. At Karlsruhe he had become a leading teacher of physical chemistry, but once in Dahlem his teaching role was limited to a few doctoral students, as he had only an honorary professorship at the University of Berlin. After the war he nearly followed the organic chemist Emil Fischer (1852–1919) as director of the Berlin university institute for chemistry, the largest in Germany. Carl Duisberg, influential director of the Bayer corporation, prevented the appointment by threatening the withdrawal of industrial contributions for academic institutes should a physical chemist be given responsibility for training organic chemists. Haber was, however, accorded a greater role in university teaching through his Dahlem institute.

The postwar Haber Colloquium in Dahlem was an unusually “democratic” and interdisciplinary forum within the normally hierarchical, specialized world of German academe. Even doctoral students felt free to speak along with full professors, enhancing the critical discussion of rapidly changing physical theories during the 1920s. This, and the high productivity of his institute, reflects Haber’s inspiring leadership.

In 1920 Haber helped organize the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft (Emergency Association of German Science, later Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [German Research Association]), which provided the first large-scale national government subsidies to the state university system, primarily through fellowships but also (for physical chemistry) through purchasing equipment to be lent to institutes for specific projects. Haber’s policy here was especially effective during the hyperinflation that climaxed in 1923, when monetary grants quickly became worthless.

Haber also played an influential role in the development of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of the Sciences, to which his institute belonged. In 1928 he took the initiative in organizing an interdisciplinary scientific advisory council for the society, composed of the permanent scientific members and directors of its institutes; Haber was elected head of the section for chemistry, physics, and technology.

Finally, Haber was among those working to reintegrate German scientific organizations into the post-war international structure of science, from which the victorious Allies had excluded them. In 1930 the newly formed Verband Deutscher Chemischer Vereine (Federation of German Chemical Associations), chaired by Haber, entered the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, whose presidium Haber joined in 1931, only to resign in 1933 after the National Socialist takeover in Germany.

1933: The Fatal Crisis . Although born to a Jewish family, Haber had in 1892 converted to Protestantism. This was not unusual among academics at the time, when religion meant little to many scientists and conversion could foster scholarly advancement. The National Socialist “racial” laws forced Haber, like many other assimilated German Jews, to reaffirm an identity he had tried to ignore (notwithstanding that most of his close associates, like Willstätter, were Jewish or of Jewish descent, and both his wives were converts from Judaism). Although Haber’s war service exempted him from dismissal in 1933, he chose to resign his directorship, postponing the effective date for a few months in order to help his Jewish subordinates find new positions abroad. His letter of resignation, rejecting the use of “racial character” as a criterion for scientific appointments (the first DSB article freely translates this as “on the basis of their grandmothers”), made him anathema to the government. Still proud of serving “humanity in peace, the fatherland in war,” as he wrote in his farewell message to his institute in September 1933, Haber departed Germany a broken man, with heart disease so severe that he could hardly work. After suffering two months of bad climate in Cambridge, England, he decided to try Palestine but died on the way, having evidently lost the will to live.


For Haber’s published works see the list in the original DSB article; the most complete bibliography is in Szöllösi-Janze’s biography (see below). Archival documents are in the Haber Collection (Haber-Sammlung), Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin-Dahlem.


Fritz Haber, Briefe an Richard Willstätter, 1910–1934. Edited by Petra Werner and Angelika Irmscher. Studien und Quellen zur Geschichte der Chemie, Bd. 6. Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschafts- und Regionalgeschichte Dr. Michael Engel, 1995.

Fritz Haber in seiner Korrespondenz mit Wilhelm Ostwald sowie in Briefen an Svante Arrhenius. Edited by Regine Zott. Berliner Beiträge zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik 20. Berlin: ERS-Verlag, 1997.


Charles, Daniel. Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Pub. in the U.K. as Between Genius and Genocide: The Tragedy of Fritz Haber, Father of Chemical Warfare. London: Cape, 2005. Relatively short, directed toward a general audience, with useful discussion of long-term impact of nitrogen fixation.

Haber, L. F. (Ludwig Fritz). The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. Thoughtfully evaluates his father’s chemical warfare work.

Hahn, Ralf. Gold aus dem Meer: Die Forschungen des Nobelpreisträgers Fritz Haber in den Jahren 1922–1927. Berlin and Diepholz, Germany: Verlag für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, 1999. On the effort to extract gold from the sea.

Stoltzenberg, Dietrich. Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew. History of Modern Chemical Sciences series. Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2004. Translation of the author’s abridgment of the original (1994) German edition; good on technical chemistry.

Szöllösi-Janze, Margit. Fritz Haber 1868–1934: Eine Biographie. Munich, Germany: C. H. Beck, 1998. Longer and with more critical scholarship than Stoltzenberg; closest we are likely to get to a definitive biography.

Travis, Anthony. “High Pressure Industrial Chemistry: The First Steps, 1909–1913, and the Impact.” In Determinants in the Evolution of the European Chemical Industry, 1900–1939: New Technologies, Political Frameworks, Markets, and Companies, edited by Anthony S. Travis, et al., 3–21. Dordrecht, Netherlands, and Boston: Kluwer, 1998.

Witschi, Hanspeter R. Fritz Haber and His Legacy to the Science of Toxicology. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2000. A brief account.

Jeffrey Allan Johnson

Haber, Fritz

views updated May 18 2018

Haber, Fritz

(b. Breslau, Germany [now Wroclaw, Poland], 9 December 1868; d. Basel, Switzerland, 29 January 1934)


Haber’s mother died when he was born. His father, who sold pigments and dyestuffs, was one of Gerrmany’s largest importers of natural indigo. Haber’s early schooling was at the Volksschule and the St. Elisabeth Gymnasium. He attended the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg and the Charlottenburg Technische Hochschule; the latter school awarded him the Ph. D. in 1891. After little more than a year of employment at three different factories, Haber entered the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule at Zurich, Switzerland, as a postdoctoral student in chemical technology and studied principally with Georg Lunge. Six months spent in his father’s business proved to be unsatisfactory, and he became an assistant to Ludwig Knorr at the University of Jena and then to Hans Bunte at the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule. He received Privatdozent status at the Baden school following publication of his first book, Experimentelle Untersuchungen über Zertsetzgung and Verbrennung von Kohlenwasserstoffen (“Experimental Studies on the Decomposition and Combustion of Hydrocarbons” [Munich, 1896]).

This record of his research exemplifies the work for which Haber became famous: theoretical studies, done with insight and thoroughness, in areas of growing practical importance. The thermal decomposition of hydrocarbons had been investigated extensively by Marcelin Berthelot twenty-five years earlier; Haber criticized Berthelot’s conclusions as arbitrary. He found the carbon-to-carbon linkage in hydrocarbons to have a greater thermal stability than the carbon-to-hydrogen linkage in aromatic compounds; the reverse was true for aliphatic compounds. This rule has been shown to be subject to exceptions.

In 1901 Haber married Dr. Clara Immerwahr, also a chemist. A son, Hermann, was born in June 1902. During the autumn of 1917, two and one-half years after the death of his first wife, he married Charlotta Nathan. Two children, Eva and Ludwig, were born; the marriage ended in divorce in 1927.

After being named Privatdozent, Haber turned to problems of physical chemistry, although he had no formal education in this area. He had the help of his colleague Hans Luggin, a pupil of Svante Arrhenius, but Haber considered himself self-taught in the field. He first investigated the electrochemical reduction of nitrobenzene and showed the importance of electrode potential. He studied the nature and rate of the electrode process for the quinine-quinol system and, interested in the nature and rate of the electrode process, did not emphasize the application to the measurement of hydrogen ion concentration. Later he devised a glass electrode to measure hydrogen ion concentration through the electric potential across a piece of thin glass. Other electrochemical subjects investigated by Haber include fuel cells; measurement of the free energy of oxidation of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon; and the electrolysis of crystalline salts. At the end of his career he had an active interest in electrochemistry, studying autoxidation; application of Planck’s quantum theory to chemistry was the basis of most of his later work. In 1898 he published his Grundriss der technischen Elektrochemie auf theoretischer Grundlage at Munich and was promoted to associate professor. As an indication of his growing reputation, in 1902 the Deutsche Bunsen-Gesellschaft sent him on a sixteen-week study tour of the United States. His report on chemical education and electrochemical industry in the country was acclaimed in Europe and America.

In 1905 Haber’s Thermodynamck technischer Gasreaktionen Vorlesungen was published at Munich, and in 1906 he was given a full professorship. Gilbert Lewis and M. Randall’s classic text, Thermodynamics and the Free Energy of Chemical Substances, published in 1923, described Haber’s book as “a model of accuracy and critical insight.”

Haber’s outstanding accomplishment in chemistry, during the first decade of the twentieth century, involved a gas reaction. He was one of many scientists interested in nitrogen fixation. As in virtually all his work, the problem had both theoretical and practical significance, and he looked into several possible solutions. Walther Nernst, a leader in physical chemistry, obtained data at variance with Haber’s for the combination of nitrogen and hydrogen to form ammonia. Nernst presented measurements from experiments done at high pressure and can be considered the first to accomplish the synthesis under these conditions. (Henry Le Chatelier had been the first to try the high-pressure synthesis, but an explosion induced him to forsake the venture.) Haber considered the difference in values a personal challenge. Working with Robert Le Rossignol, a student from the Isle of Jersey, and assisted by the mechanic Kirchenbauer, he performed high-pressure experiments and confirmed his earlier results, done at atmospheric pressure, which Nernst had questioned. A constant used by Nernst in his calculations—not his heat theorem—was later shown to be the cause of the erroneous values.

Haber went on to commercial exploitation of the synthesis of ammonia. His calculations showed that about 8 percent ammonia was available at pressures of 200 atmospheres and temperatures of 600°C. However, it was through the work of others that the process came to be the first successful high-pressure industrial chemical reaction. Such practical problems as a satisfactory, long-lasting container for the operation were solved under the direction of Carl Bosch and his associates at the Badische Anilin- and Sodafabrik. Nonetheless, users and students of highpressure techniques came to Haber’s laboratory for instruction.

In 1912 Haber became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry at Dahlem, on the outskirts of Berlin. His friend Richard Willstätter was codirector, with Ernst Beckmann, of the first of these Kaiser Wilhelm research institutes, for chemistry.

At the start of World War I, Haber placed himself and his laboratory at the service of his country. Assigned problems involving the supply of war materials, he showed xylene and solvent naphtha to be good substitutes for toluene as an antifreeze in benzene motor fuel. The War Ministry consulted Walther Nernst about using irritants to drive the Allies out of their trenches so’ that open warfare might be resumed; Haber was given a share in solving this problem. Dianisidine chlorosulfonate, an irritant powder suggested by Nernst, and the lacrimator xylyl bromide proved to be ineffective. Haber’s laboratory studied other irritants and the investigation came to a close in December 1914 with an explosion when a few drops of dichloromethylamine were added to a few cubic centimeters of impure cacodyl chloride. Otto Sackur, an outstanding physical chemist, was killed.

Haber developed the use of chlorine gas as a war weapon; by the end of January 1915 the preliminary laboratory research was completed. On 11 April 1915 about 5,000 cylinders of the gas were distributed, and the chemical was released over a 3.5-mile front near Ypres, Belgium. German military leaders later admitted that had massive attacks rather than the small test been done, German victory would have been assured. Instead, the Allies soon developed gases and the weapon on both sides was no longer intended to move men but to kill them.

In 1916 Haber became chief of the Chemical Warfare Service; and although he was only a captain, every detail of chemical offense, defense, supply, and research came under his supervision. By that time his process of nitrogen fixation was used in supplying Germany with nitrogen compounds, needed for fertilizers and for the explosives that provided staying power after the United States’s entry into the war.

In November 1919 Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The honor was denounced by some French, British, and American scientists, which dealt another blow to his spiritual and physical condition. Having put all his energies into the war, he was obliged to share personally in Germany’s defeat. To be condemned as inhuman by fellow scientists also involved in war work deeply troubled him.

During the early postwar years Haber continued his patriotic efforts. He was the leading figure in appeals for the Notgemeinschaft, the Emergency Society for German Science. His most noteworthy contribution, although a failure, was to search the oceans for gold, in the hope of extracting enough to pay the war reparations demanded by the Allies. Nineteenth-century analyses had shown that some samples of seawater contained nearly twice as much as the lowest-grade land deposit that was profitable to operate. Unfortunately, Haber did not verify the published results, later established as much too high, and an extraction scheme was devised without ascertaining the exact amount of gold and its form in seawater. Several ocean trips were undertaken in vain, but a very accurate method for gold analysis was found.

Haber’s other activities during the postwar years proved more fruitful. His institute became one of the great scientific research centers in the world. During his tenure as director the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry was credited with more than 700 publications in scientific journals. As at Karlsruhe and as head of chemical warfare, Haber showed himself to be a talented leader. He displayed versatility in handling a variety of subject matters in both academic and military situations. He was able to conform to a military environment and provide at other times a liberal and independent atmosphere to his associates. Beginning as an organic chemist, he contributed to every branch of physical chemistry as well as to peripheral sciences. He was a pure and applied scientist able to bridge the gap between the purist and the engineer. Men rather than accomplishments were the products of his direction; many outstanding physical chemists of the first half of the twentieth century started their careers with him.

The Haber Colloquium, a research seminar at his institute, began in October 1919 and soon attracted scientists from all parts of Europe. Haber’s contribution was clarity and the ability to abstract, spiced with satire and wit. His ability to think about and discuss material from the hydrogen atom to the flea, presented by expert lecturers, was greatly admired. As other commitments took him away from the meetings, they lost their verve and attendance dropped.

He was always engrossed in research projects and activities, and he had an extraordinary ability to concentrate, staying with problems both scientific and nonscientific. His speaking, reading, and writing habits were in this same mold. His best appreciated speeches were given at a commemoration for Justus Liebig, with whom he has been compared, and on the departure of his friend James Franck to join Göttingen University. He enjoyed mystery stories for recreational reading and composed verse for friends and relatives. He had an intellectual approach to these endeavors. Once he and Willstär planned a vacation based on biblical quotations. As a youth he was interested in dramatics, and throughout his life he showed a flair for the theatrical.

Haber served Germany well in his relations with foreigners and in foreign countries. His laboratories at Karlsruhe and Dahlem always had foreign students. In 1929 half of the sixty members of his Institute were foreigners from a dozen different countries. After World War I, the number or foreign visitors increased and he traveled to other countries for vacations and scientific meetings. After a two-month visit to Japan, he helped establish the Japan Institute for promoting mutual understanding and cultural interests. He represented Germany on the Board of the Union Internationale de Chimie from 1929 to 1933.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was affected soon after the Nazis came to power. The Ministry of Art, Science and Popular Education demanded the dismissal of the Jewish workers there. Haber formally resigned in a letter dated 30 April 1933, writing: “For more than forty years I have selected my collaborators on the basis of their intelligence and their character and not on the basis of their grandmothers, and I am not willing for the rest of my life to change this method which I have found so good.”

Haber received an invitation to work at the Cambridge laboratory of William J. Pope, and he did so for four months. He also had an offer to head the physical chemistry section at the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Israel and accepted, provided he found the climate and living conditions suitable. He died in Switzerland while on the way to the opening ceremonies for the Sieff Institute.

In 1935, on the first anniversary of his death, a number of learned societies in Germany did commemorate the occasion. Five hundred men and women gathered in Dahlem to pay tribute to him, despite the displeasure of the Nazis.


I. Original Works. A full list of Haber’s works is in Morris Goran, The Story of Fritz Haber (Norman, 1967). His most important writings include “Bidioxymethylenindigo,” in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 23 (1890), 1566, written with C. Liebermann; “über einige Derwate des Piperonals,” ibid.,24 (1891), 617; “Elektrolytische Darstellung von Phenyl-B-hydroxylamin,” in Zeitschrift für Elektrochemie, 5 (1898), 77–78; Uber die elektrische Reduktion von Nichtelektrolyten,” in Zeitschriftfür physikalische Chemie,32 (1900), 193–270; “über den textilen Flachdruck,” in Zeitschrift für angewandte Chemie and Zentralblatt für technische Chemie, 15 (1902), 1177–1183; and “Zur Theorie der Indigoreaktion,” in Zeitschrift für Elektrochemie, 9 (1903), 607–608.

See also “Über das Ammoniakgleichgewicht,” in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 40 (1907), 2144–2154, written with R. Le Rossignol; “Zur Kenntnis des Hydroxylamins,” in Journal für praktische Chemie, 79 (1909), 173–176; “über die Darstellung des Ammoniaks aus Stickstoff and Wasserstoff,” in Zeitschrift für Elektrochemie, 16 (1910), 244–246; “Die Schlagwetterpfeife,” in Naturwissenschaften, 1 (1914), 1049; “Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Metalle,” in Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (1919), 506–518; “Über amorphe Niederschäge and Kristal-lisierte Sole,” in Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellscaft, 55 (1922), 1717–1733; and “Beitrag zur Kenntnis des Rheinwassers,” in Zeitschrift für anorganische and allgemeine Chemie, 147 (1925), 156–170, written with J. Jaenicke.

II. Secondary Literature. For works about Haber, see E. Berl, “Fritz Haber zum 60 Geburtstage,” in Zeitschrift für Elektrochemie, 34 (1928), 797–803; J. E. Coates, “The Haber Memorial Lecture,” in journal of the Chemical Society (Nov. 1939), pp. 1642–1672; M. Goran, “Present Day Significance of Fritz Haber,” in American Scientist (July 1947); and A. Stoll, ed., The Memoirs of Richard Willstätter (New York, 1965).

Morris Goran

Fritz Haber

views updated Jun 11 2018

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber (1868-1934) won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for developing the Haber process, which produced ammonia. Haber directed Germany's chemical warfare during World War II.

One the foremost chemists of his generation, Fritz Haber's legacy did not end with his considerable achievements of both theoretical and practical value in the fields of physical chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and engineering. Perhaps of even greater importance were his tireless attempts to promote communication and understanding between scientific communities across the globe. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, under his direction, became famous in the years after World War I as a leading center of research whose seminars attracted scientists from all nations. In his most outstanding contribution to chemistry—for which he won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry—Haber found an inexpensive method for synthesizing large quantities of ammonia from its constituent elements nitrogen and hydrogen. A steady supply of ammonia made possible the industrial production of fertilizer and explosives.

Haber was born on December 9, 1868, in Breslau (now known as Wroclaw, Poland), the only child of first cousins Siegfried Haber and Paula Haber. Haber's mother died in childbirth. In 1877, his father, a prosperous importer of dyes and pigments, married Hedwig Hamburger, who bore him three daughters. Haber and his father had a distant relationship, but his stepmother treated him kindly. From a local grade school, Haber went to the St. Elizabeth Gymnasium (high school) in Breslau. There he developed an abiding love of literature, particularly the voluminous writings of Goethe, which inspired him to write verse. Haber also enjoyed acting, considering it as a profession early on before settling on chemistry.

After entering the University of Berlin in 1886 to study chemistry, Haber transferred after a semester to the University of Heidelberg. There, under the supervision of Robert Bunsen (who gave his name to the burner used in laboratories everywhere), Haber delved into physical chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Getting his Ph.D. in 1891, Haber tried working as an industrial laboratory chemist but found its rigid routines too intellectually confining. He decided instead to enter the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, in order to learn about the most advanced chemical engineering techniques of his time, studying under Georg Lunge.

Haber then tried, without success, to work in his father's business, opting after six months to return to academia. In 1894, after a brief stint at the University of Jena, he took an assistant teaching position with Hans Bunte, professor of chemical technology at the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule in Baden. Haber enjoyed Karlsruhe's emphasis on preparing its students for technical positions, stressing the connections between science and industry. His studies led him to investigate the breakdown at high temperatures of organic compounds known as hydrocarbons, an area pioneered by the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot. After correcting and systematizing Berthelot's findings, Haber's results, published in 1896 as a book entitled Experimental Studies on the Decomposition and Combustion of Hydro-carbons, led to his appointment that year as lecturer, a step below associate professor.

Haber married another chemist, Clara Immerwahr, in 1901. They had a son, Hermann, born in June, 1902. While a lecturer, Haber moved his experimental focus from organic chemistry to physical chemistry. Although he lacked a formal education in this area, with the help of a colleague, Hans Luggin, he began to research the effect of electrical currents on fuel cells and the loss of efficiency in steam engines through heat. Haber also devised electrical instruments to measure the loss of oxygen in burning organic compounds, outlining this subject in a book published in 1898, Outline of Technical Electrochemistry on a Theoretical Basis, which earned him a promotion to associate professor. Haber's exceptional abilities as a researcher, which included his precision as a mathematician and writer, induced a leading German science group to send him in 1902 to survey America's approach to chemistry in industry and education.

Haber published a third book, Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions, in 1905. In the volume he applied thermodynamic theory on the behavior of gases to establish industrial requirements for creating reactions. His clear exposition gave him an international reputation as an expert in adapting science to technology. That same year, Haber began his groundbreaking work on the synthesis of ammonia. Europe's growing population had created a demand for an increase in agricultural production. Nitrates, used in industrial fertilizer, required ammonia for their manufacture. Thus, Haber's goal to find new ways to fabricate ammonia grew out of a very pressing need. Other scientists had been synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen but at temperatures of one thousand degrees centigrade, which were not practical for industrial production. Haber was able to get the same reaction but at manageable temperatures of three hundred degrees centigrade.

The chemist Walther Nernst had obtained the synthesis of ammonia with gases at very high pressures. He also had disputed Haber's results for his high-temperature reaction. Goaded by Nernst's skepticism, Haber executed high-pressure experiments and confirmed his earlier calculations. He then combined Nernst's technique with his own to greatly increase the efficiency of the process. To augment the yield even further, Haber found a superior catalyst for the reaction and redirected the heat it produced back into the system to save on the expenditure of energy.

The final step of bringing Haber's work into the factory fell to the engineer Karl Bosch, whose company, Badische Anilin-und Sodafabrik (BASF), had supported Haber's research. After Bosch solved some key problems such as designing containers that could withstand a corrosive process over a period of time, full-scale industrial output began in 1910. Today the Haber-Bosch process is an industry standard for the mass production of ammonia.

In 1912 Haber was appointed director of the newly formed Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry at Dahlheim, just outside of Berlin; Richard Willstätter and Ernst Beckmann joined as codirectors. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Haber volunteered his laboratory and his expertise to help Germany. At first, he developed alternate sources of anti-freeze. Then, the German War Office consulted both Nernst and Haber about developing a chemical weapon that would drive the enemy out of their trenches in order to resume open warfare. In January, 1915, the German Army began production of a chlorine gas that Haber's team had invented. On April 11, 1915, in the first chemical offensive ever, five thousand cylinders of chlorine gas blanketed 3.5 miles of enemy territory near Ypres, Belgium, resulting in 150, 000 deaths.

Haber hated the war but hoped that in developing the gases he would help to bring it to a speedy end by breaking the deadlock of trench warfare. His wife, however, denounced his work as a perversion of science. After a violent argument with Haber in 1915, she committed suicide. Haber was married again in 1917 to Charlotte Nathan, who bore him a son and a daughter. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1927.

In 1916 Haber was appointed chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, overseeing every detail in that department. His process for developing nitrates from ammonia became incorporated into Germany's manufacture of explosives. Because of his duties as supervisor of chemical warfare, American, French, and British scientists vehemently contested his 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Although many of the Allied scientists had also contributed to the war effort, they charged that Haber was a war criminal for developing chemical weapons.

Since the 1918 prize had been reserved for until after the war ended, Haber accepted his Nobel Prize in November, 1919. Unquestionably, Haber had invented, in the words of the prize's presenter, A. G. Ekstrand of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, "an exceedingly important means of improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind." Yet the controversy over his award, on top of Germany's defeat, his first wife's suicide, and his developing diabetes, depressed Haber greatly.

Nevertheless, Haber continued to turn his technical acumen to patriotic ends. In 1920, to help Germany pay off the onerous war reparations that the Versailles Treaty had imposed, Haber headed a doomed attempt to recover gold from seawater. Unfortunately, he had based his project on unverified nineteenth-century mineral analyses that had grossly overestimated the quantities for gold. It turned out after several abortive sea voyages that there was simply not enough gold present in seawater to make refining profitable. However, Haber did perfect a very precise method for measuring concentrations of gold.

Haber had much greater success as continuing director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. His proven leadership ability attracted some of the best talent in the world to his laboratory in Karlsruhe and to the Institute, where in 1929 fully half of the members were foreigners from a dozen countries.

In 1919 he began the Haber Colloquium, an ongoing seminar that during the postwar years brought together the best minds in chemistry and physics, among them Niels Bohr, Peter Debye, Otto Meyerhof, and Otto Warburg. Haber's sharp wit, critical intelligence and broad knowledge of science were greatly appreciated at the seminars. When he ceased attending regularly, they became markedly less popular. Haber traveled widely to foster greater cooperation between nations. As an example, he helped establish the Japan Institute in that nation to foster shared cultural interests with other countries. From 1929 to 1933 he occupied Germany's seat on the Union Internationale de Chimie.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Kaiser Institute fell on hard times. After receiving a demand from the minister of art, science, and popular education to dismiss all Jewish workers at the institute, Haber—a Jew himself—resigned on April 30, 1933. He wrote in his letter of resignation that having always selected his collaborators on the basis of their intelligence and character, he could not conceive of having to change so successful a method.

Haber fled Germany for England, accepting the invitation of his colleague William J. Pope to work in Cambridge, where he stayed for four months. Chaim Weitzmann, a chemist who would become the first president of Israel, offered Haber the position of director in the physical chemistry department of the Daniel Sieff Research Institute at Rehovot, in what is now Israel. Despite ill health, Haber accepted and in January, 1934, after recovering from a heart attack, began the trip. Resting on the way in Basel, Switzerland, he died on January 29, 1934. His friend and colleague Willstätter gave the memorial speech at his funeral. On the first anniversary of his death, over five hundred men and women from cultural societies across Germany converged on the institute—despite Nazi attempts at intimidation—to pay homage to Haber.

Further Reading

Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 5, Scribner, 1972, pp. 620-623.

Farber, Eduard, Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry, 1901-1961, Abelard-Schuman, 1953, revised 1963, pp. 71-75.

Wasson, Tyler, editor, Nobel Prize Winners, H. W. Wilson, 1987, pp. 402-404. □

Haber, Fritz

views updated May 11 2018

Haber, Fritz


Fritz Haber, born in Breslau, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland), successfully applied physical chemistry to technological problems. In 1918 he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his synthesis of ammonia from the elements, an important starting material in the production of fertilizers and explosives.

Haber, whose father was a natural dyestuff importer, was destined to enter the family business at a time when synthetic dyes began to dominate the market, and his fortunes soon floundered. In 1894 the young Haber became assistant to Hans Bunte at the Technical University of Karlsruhe. Self-taught in physical and electrochemistry, he applied these new theories with impressive results to chemical technology, particularly to the combustion of hydrocarbons, the electrolysis of salts, and the fixation of nitrogen. In 1906 he was appointed professor at Karlsruhe, but he left six years later to become director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. During World War I, that institute was transformed into Germany's headquarters for chemical weapons research and production, with Haber remaining as its director. When the Nazis in 1933 began to dismiss all Jews from civil service, Haber, himself a Jew who had converted to Christianity, immediately resigned and emigrated to Great Britain. He was invited to head the physical chemistry section of the new Weizmann Institute in Palestine, but died shortly before its establishment.

The most abundant component of common air, elementary nitrogen, stubbornly resists chemical reactions. However, certain bacteria can transform it to ammonia (the so-called fixation of nitrogen) as the essential raw material for protein production in plants. That was already known in the late nineteenth century when a rapidly growing population required a more efficient agriculture to be supported by fertilizers including "fixed nitrogen." At that time natural niter (KNO3), or guano from Chile, was virtually the only nitrogen source for fertilizers, so chemists were challenged to find ways to fix nitrogen from the air. In the early 1900s, several prominent physical chemists, including Henri-Louis Le Châtelier, Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, and Walther Hermann Nernst, were experimentally and theoretically working on this issue from two different approaches to nitrogen: oxidation to nitrogen oxide and reduction with hydrogen to ammonia.

Although most researchers soon dropped the topic because of little success, from 1904 on Haber continued investigating both approaches under contract with the chemical company BASF (Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrik), who offered him money, equipment, and patent shares. The path to ammonia turned out to be more promising if the reaction rates were increased by catalysts at high temperature. Thermodynamics required low temperature, however, to move the equilibrium toward higher yields of ammonia. Because thermodynamics predicted the same effect at high pressure, Haber and his coworkers at BASF searched for temperature and pressure conditions that a reaction vessel could withstand and that resulted in acceptable yields. Success came only when they found more effective catalysts, at first with osmium and uranium. In addition, they pushed the equilibrium to the product side by continuously drawing off ammonia from the reaction mixture and continuously providing new reactants, resulting in 1909 in a steady flow reactor at about 100 atm and 500°C (932°F) with ammonia yields of some 10 percent.

Haber demonstrated that the production of ammonia from the elements was feasible in the laboratory, but it was up to Carl Bosch, a chemist and engineer at BASF, to transform the process into large-scale production. The industrial converter that Bosch and his coworkers created was completely revised, including a cheaper and more effective catalyst based on extensive studies in high-pressure catalytic reactions. This approach led to Bosch receiving the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1931, and the production of multimillion tons of fertilizer per year worldwide.

see also Agricultural Chemistry; Catalysis and Catalysts; Equilibrium; Le ChÂtelier, Henri; Nernst, Walther Hermann; Ostwald, Friedrich Wilhelm.

Joachim Schummer


Goran, Morris (1967). The Story of Fritz Haber. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Smil, Vaclav (2001). Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stoltzenberg, Dietrich (2003). Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew: A Biography. Philadelphia, PA: Chemical Heritage Press.

Travis, Anthony S. (1984). The High Pressure Chemists. Wembley, U.K.: Brent Schools & Industry Project.

Haber, Fritz

views updated May 09 2018


HABER, FRITZ (1868–1934), German physical chemist and Nobel laureate. Haber was born in Breslau, the son of a prosperous chemical and dye merchant and an alderman of the city. After a period in industry and business, he went in 1893 to the Technische Hochschule at Karlsruhe, and in 1906 became professor of physical and electrochemistry. His work on carbon bonds led to a rule bearing his name. Turning to electrochemistry, he wrote Grundriss der technischen Electrochemieauf theoretische Grundlage (1898) and was a co-developer of the glass electrode. In 1905 he wrote Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions. His most important work, started in 1904, was the synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. His laboratory demonstration interested Bosch, Bergius, and the Badische Anilin-und Sodafabrik companies, and they eventually developed the process into a commercial operation. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918 "for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements"; this work of Haber was to be invaluable to the German military effort in World War i. In 1911 he was made director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Research Institute in Berlin-Dahlem, and in 1914 this was turned over to war work, particularly gas warfare, starting with chlorine and ending with mustard gas. After Germany's defeat, he reconstituted his Institute, and in the 1920s it became probably the leading center of physical chemistry in the world. Haber was president of the German Chemical Society, and of the Verband deutscher chemischer Vereine (which he created), and after some months spent in Japan he created the Japan Institute in Berlin and Tokyo.

Haber left the Jewish faith, and with the Nazi accession to power in 1933 was not immediately threatened but he was ordered to dismiss all the Jews on the staff of his institute. He refused and resigned. His health, already poor, deteriorated. He went to a sanatorium in Switzerland, where he died. In 1952 a tablet was unveiled in Haber's memory at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.


M.H. Goran, The Story of Fritz Haber (1967), incl. bibl.; R. Stern, in: ylbi, 8 (1963), 70–102.

[Samuel Aaron Miller]