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), into a Hassidic family. The most conservative and strict within the Jewish faith. His was one of the oldest families of that town. Haber later converted from strict Judaism to Christianity, most probably, to escape the antisemitism of his day. 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.
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.
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, or population crisis and led to massive unemployment in Chile.
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).
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. 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."
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. 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.
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.
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's genius was recognized by the Nazis who offered him special funding to continue his research on weapons. However, as a result of fellow Jewish scientists having already been expelled from working in that field, he left Germany in 1933. 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 eventual vilification of his heritage by the Nazi regime. 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. 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. He was cremated and his ashes, together with Clara's ashes, were buried in Basel's Hornli Cemetery. 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).
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 from the Diversity Website:
The second was entitled "The Greater Good" and was first broadcast on 23 October 2008. 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.
In November 2008 Haber was again played by Anton Lesser in Einstein and Eddington.
1. ^ http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1918/haber-bio.html Nobel biography of Fritz Haber
* 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.
* Nobel e-Museum - Biography of Fritz Haber
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