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Fritz Haber

Born 9 December 1868
Breslau, Germany
Died 29 January 1934 (aged 65)
Basel, Switzerland
Nationality Germany
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 Fertilisers, Explosives, Haber process, Haber-Weiss reaction, chemical warfare
Notable awards Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1918)

Fritz Haber (9 December 1868 – 29 January 1934) was a German chemist, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his development for synthesizing ammonia, important for fertilizers and explosives. Haber, along with Max Born, proposed the Born–Haber cycle as a method for evaluating the lattice energy of an ionic solid. He has also been described as the "father of chemical warfare" for his work developing and deploying chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I.



Haber was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), to Jewish parents of one of the oldest families of the town, but Haber later converted to Christianity.[1] His mother died during childbirth. His father was a well-known merchant in the town. From 1886 until 1891 he studied at the University of Heidelberg under Robert Bunsen, at the University of Berlin (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. He married Clara Immerwahr during 1901. Their son, Hermann was born in 1902. 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.

Nobel Prize

During his time at University of Karlsruhe from 1894 to 1911, he and Carl Bosch developed the Haber process, which is the catalytic formation of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen under conditions of low temperature and high pressure.[2]

In 1918 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. The Haber-Bosch process was a milestone in industrial chemistry, because it divorced the production of nitrogen products, such as fertilizer, explosives and chemical feedstocks, from natural deposits, especially sodium nitrate (caliche), of which Chile was a major (and almost unique) producer. The sudden availability of cheap nitrogenous fertilizer is credited with averting a Malthusian catastrophe,[citation needed] or population crisis and led to massive unemployment in Chile.[citation needed]

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).[3][4]

World War I

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 absorbent 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. Future Nobel laureates James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn served as gas troops in Haber's unit.

Gas warfare in WW I was, in a sense, the war of the chemists, with Haber pitted against French Nobel laureate chemist Victor Grignard.

His wife, Clara Immerwahr, a fellow chemist, opposed his work on poison gas and committed suicide with his service weapon in their garden, possibly in response to his having personally overseen the first successful use of chlorine at the Second Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915.[5] She shot herself in the heart on 15 May, and died in the morning. That same morning, Haber left for the Eastern Front to oversee gas release against the Russians.[6]

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 B, which was used as an insecticide, especially as a fumigant in grain stores, and also later, after he left the program, in the Nazi extermination camps, killing other Jews, including, with terrible irony, many of his relatives.[7]


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

Haber was forced to leave Germany in 1933 because of Nazi persecution of Jews. His Nobel Prize winning work in chemistry, and subsequent contributions to Germany's war efforts in the form of chemical fertilizers, explosives and poison munitions, were not enough to prevent vilification of his heritage by the Nazi regime. He moved to Cambridge, England, for a few months, during which time Ernest Rutherford pointedly refused to shake hands with him, due to his involvement in poison gas warfare. Haber was offered by Chaim Weizmann the position of director at the Sieff Research Institute (now the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot, in Mandate Palestine, and accepted it. He started his voyage to what is today Israel in January 1934, after recovering from a heart attack. However, his ill health overpowered him and in January 29, 1934, at the age of 65, he died of heart failure in a Basel hotel, where he was resting on his way to the Middle East.[8] He was cremated and his ashes, together with Clara's ashes, were buried in Basel's Hornli Cemetery.[9] He bequeathed his extensive private library to the Sieff Institute.

Haber's immediate family also left Germany. His second wife, Charlotte, with their two 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. Members of Haber's extended family died in concentration camps. 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).[10]


Haber received much criticism for his involvement in the development of chemical weapons in pre-World War II Germany both by contemporaries and by modern-day scientists.[11]

Dramatic treatment

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[12] from the Diversity Website:

Bread from the Air, Gold from the Sea as another chemical story (R4, 1415, 16 Feb 01). Fritz Haber found a way of making nitrogen compounds from the air. They have two main uses: fertilizers and explosives. His process enabled Germany to produce vast quantities of armaments. (The second part of the title refers to a process for obtaining gold from sea water. It worked, but didn't pay.) There can be few figures with a more interesting life than Haber, from a biographer's point of view. He made German agriculture independent of Chilean saltpetre during the Great War. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, yet there were moves to strip him of the award because of his work on gas warfare. He pointed out, rightly, that most of Nobel's money had come from armaments and the pursuit of war. After Hitler's rise to power, the government forced Haber to resign from his professorship and research jobs because he was Jewish.

The second was entitled "The Greater Good" and was first broadcast on 23 October 2008.[13] 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.[14][15]

In November 2008 Haber was again played by Anton Lesser in Einstein and Eddington.[16]


  1. ^ Nobel biography of Fritz Haber
  2. ^ "Original Patent for Synthesis of Ammonia". European Patent Office. 
  3. ^ "...MDMA was actually first synthesized by Fritz Haber in 1892...". Ask Erowid. 
  4. ^ Benzenhöfer, U. and Passie, T. (2006): Zur Frühgeschichte von Ecstasy. In: Der Nervenarzt. Bd. 77, S. 95-99. PMID 16397805 PDF
  5. ^ Hobbes, Nicholas (2003). Essential Militaria. Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1843542292. 
  6. ^ Huxtable, R. J. (2002). "Reflections: Fritz Haber and the ambiguity of ethics". Procedings Western Pharmacology Soc 45: 1–3. Retrieved 2009-10-11. 
  7. ^ M. Szöllösi-Janze (2001). "Pesticides and war: the case of Fritz Haber". European Review 9: 97–108. doi:10.1017/S1062798701000096. 
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ A photograph of their gravestone in Hornli Cemetery, Basel can be found in the book written by Stolzenberg.
  10. ^ "Lutz F. Haber (1921–2004)". University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 
  11. ^ Between Genius and Genocide: The Tragedy of Fritz Haber, Father of Chemical Warfare by Daniel Charles
  12. ^ "Bread from the Air, Gold from the Sea". Archives of Anthony Phillips (who composed the music). 
  13. ^ "Afternoon Play, The Greater Good". BBC. 
  14. ^ "Haber (2008)". The Internet Movie Database. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-18. 
  15. ^ Trailer for Haber short film
  16. ^ "Einstein and Eddington (2008) (TV)". The Internet Movie Database. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-18. 

Further reading

  • 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.
  • 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

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