Immerwahr, Clara (1870–1915)

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Immerwahr, Clara (1870–1915)

German chemist, the first German woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry, who committed suicide to protest her husband's involvement in the military use of poison gas. Born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), on June 21, 1870; died by her own hand on May 2, 1915; married Fritz Haber (a noted chemist); children: one son, Hermann.

Clara Immerwahr was born in 1870, the year that marked the final phase of Germany's unification (the first German Reich was officially proclaimed on January 18, 1871). She grew up in a wealthy, highly cultured German-Jewish family, her father having achieved distinction as a chemist. Determined by her late teen years to enter into a scientific career, Clara was unwilling to let institutional discrimination keep her from achieving her goal of becoming a productive research scientist. In 1898, Immerwahr became the first woman in Germany to pass the difficult Verbandsexamen, a predoctoral qualifying examination designed to bring higher standards in the training of professional chemists. In 1900, she was awarded her doctorate in physical chemistry, her dissertation being a study of the solubility of metal salts. With her degree, awarded by the University of Breslau with the distinction of magna cum laude, Clara Immerwahr became the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry at a German university.

After working briefly as research assistant in Clausthal following graduation, in 1901 Immerwahr married Fritz Haber. As gifted in chemistry as his bride, Haber also came from Breslau and could point to a similar family background, having been born into an affluent, assimilated Jewish family (his father ran a successful dye business). Within a year, a son, Hermann, was born to the couple. At first, Immerwahr believed that she would be able to successfully juggle the careers of wife, mother and research chemist, and she collaborated with her husband when he wrote his standard textbook on the thermodynamics of technical gas reactions—a book that he dedicated to her.

Soon it became obvious to Clara that her husband's career came first. Although she was occasionally able to present lectures on such topics of general interest as "Chemistry and Physics in the Household" to women's clubs and adult education classes, she was forced to abandon her plans. Reluctantly, she had to accept the reality that university lectureships were all but unobtainable for women, and that she bore additional burdens because she was Jewish, married and a mother. Her husband, on the other hand, forged ahead with his intention to make his mark on both the world of academia and industry.

By 1908, Haber had been appointed full professor of physical chemistry at the University of Karlsruhe, and in 1911 he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin. Along with the directorship, he received a professorial chair at the University of Berlin and membership in the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences. Despite the anti-Semitism prevalent in the German Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm II, highly talented individuals of Jewish birth could in fact rise to the top of their professions, but in private many of their colleagues and fellow citizens regarded them as not fully German (to gain full acceptance, Haber had converted to Christianity, but to many both the Habers were still Jews). Certain forms of discrimination remained in place, including a ban on Jews receiving commissions as officers in the Prussian-dominated German Army. In the years immediately preceding World War I, Fritz Haber attempted to establish institutional contacts between his institute and the German military but found himself rebuffed, in part because of anti-Semitism, but also because the mind-set of the military remained largely indifferent and even hostile to science and technology.

In the early years of his scientific career, Fritz Haber made a discovery with immense consequences. In 1909, in a classic experiment using high pressure and a metal catalyst, he was able to make the normally unreactive gas nitrogen combine with hydrogen to form ammonia—something that chemists had been attempting to achieve without success for well over a century. Within four years, the laboratory synthesis of ammonia had been turned into an industrial process that was both practicable and profitable, making possible the extraction of other compounds containing nitrogen that could now be produced in virtually unlimited amounts. These included nitroglycerine and other high explosives for military use. But the same process could also be used to inexpensively produce ammonia fertilizer, thus preventing soil exhaustion.

After less than a decade of marriage, Immerwahr had grown increasingly frustrated and unhappy. "What Fritz has gained in these eight years," she wrote a friend, "I have lost, and what is left of me fills me with profound dissatisfaction."

The start of World War I in August 1914 gave Haber his opportunity to prove his patriotism. His Haber process, perfected by Germany's highly developed chemical industry, now enabled the Fatherland to continue to fight a war that would otherwise have quickly ended when the limited supplies of nitrates for ammunition and explosives as well as agricultural fertilizer ran out. Haber, who had not been able to obtain an officer's commission in peacetime because of the Army's pervasive spirit of anti-Semitism, now became a captain, and soon headed the section in the War Ministry concentrating on gas warfare. In early 1915, he suggested that instead of firing non-lethal irritating gases encased in artillery shells (something the enemy was also experimenting with), another method of chemical warfare be used. His idea, diabolically simple, was to release highly toxic chlorine gas under proper wind conditions, so that it would drift across no man's land and into the enemy's trenches, where it would kill, maim and disable without an artillery bombardment.

Code-named "Disinfection," Haber's experiment in chemical warfare first took place on the western front in the Ypres sector in Belgium on Thursday, April 22, 1915, at just after 1700 hours. Within ten minutes, 6,000 cylinders of chlorine—easily obtained by the military since it was already being produced in electrochemical factories—were released and 150 tons of gas soon was drifting toward the British and French trenches. The defenders were taken completely by surprise, and within minutes the front collapsed. Even hardened military observers were shocked by what they had witnessed: "It was at first impossible for anyone to realize what had actually happened. The smoke and fumes hid everything from sight, and hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying condition, and within an hour the whole position had to be abandoned." Of the 7,000 casualties that day, more than 5,000 died. Although the German forces at first made easy gains of territory, the leadership did not take sufficient advantage of the opportunity on this and other occasions, and the ghastly stalemate of trench warfare would continue for virtually the rest of World War I.

Fritz Haber believed that gas warfare could shorten the war and its suffering as well as make a German victory possible. He hoped that the new form of warfare would break the stalemate, and as a scientist in the service of his nation was untroubled by the moral consequences of the new weaponry. Science, he once said, belonged to humanity in peacetime and to the Fatherland in war. In reality, the attack of April 22, 1915, was followed by countless others which released 125,000 tons of toxic chemicals that resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 soldiers on both sides of the conflict; at least 1,300,000 combatants were wounded, and many condemned to suffer intense, crippling physical pain for the rest of their lives. By the end of World War I in 1918, all sides in the great conflict were either using poison gas or had massive stockpiles on hand for future use.

For Immerwahr, her husband's enthusiastic dedication to chemical warfare represented the final break. She was horrified by the loss of life and was convinced that the war was bringing about an inhumane application of the uses of science and technology, which for her was meant to advance the cause of humanity. She faulted her husband for choosing to work in a project she believed to be nothing less than "a perversion of the ideals of science." His angry response was to accuse her in front of friends and colleagues of making statements treasonous to the Fatherland.

Having witnessed her husband's metamorphosis from a benefactor of humanity into a weapons scientist, Immerwahr pleaded with him on several occasions to cease working on gas warfare but to no avail. Returning in triumph from the Ypres front to their home in Berlin's elegant suburb of Dahlem, Haber attended a party in his honor the night before he was scheduled to go to the eastern front to supervise a gas attack. Fritz and Clara quarreled, and that same night, May 2, 1915, while he slept with the help of sleeping pills, Immerwahr shot herself fatally with his service revolver. The next morning, Fritz Haber proceeded to his duties at the front. Any notes or letters she may have left behind were destroyed. For the rest of his life, Fritz Haber never discussed any of the details of her death.

By 1917, Haber had transformed the peaceful research facility he ran before the war into a massive research center for tactical military science and technology. He boasted of a staff of 1,500, of which at least 150 researchers in many areas of expertise had been drafted, recruited or reassigned from other military departments to work under him. His total budget was 50 times that of his prewar institute, but his military rank never was higher than that of a captain, while his counterpart in the British Army, like Haber also a professional chemist, became a general. The lingering anti-Semitism of the German military

for whom he labored continued to haunt Haber. In 1918, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his pathbreaking work in ammonia synthesis, but when Haber received his award, the great physicist Ernest Rutherford declined to shake his hand. A few months later, there were calls for Haber's arrest and trial as a war criminal because of the key role he had played in the genesis of gas warfare.

Fritz Haber remained a major scientific personality in Germany in the Weimar Republic. He remarried, while the memory of Clara Immerwahr faded into obscurity. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, his scientific work for the Fatherland was ignored, and he went into exile, finding refuge in Great Britain. There, too, he was looked upon as a pariah because of his gas warfare activities. Rejected and emotionally shattered, Haber went to Italy to recover his health. On the way, in Switzerland, in January 1934, he died. Many years later, in 1968, when the University of Karlsruhe honored him on the centenary of his birth, the commemorative ceremony was disrupted by students who unfurled a banner reading, Feier für einen Mörder/Haber = Vater des Gaskriegs (Celebration for a Murderer/Haber = Father of Gas Warfare).

In the 1970s, the legacy of Clara Immerwahr began to come to the attention of the German public. Historians and activists alike began to investigate this remarkable woman who ended her life in a protest against the desecration of science. Journal articles and a full-length biography by Gerit von Leitner brought Immerwahr's struggles to a generation confronted with the destructive potentialities of science and technology in an age of nuclear, chemical, and biological global mass destruction. A role model for civic courage, she is the subject of Tony Harrison's 1992 play Square Rounds. In her honor, the German Section of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War designated its most prestigious award, the Clara Immerwahr Prize.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Immerwahr, Clara (1870–1915)

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