Fritz Haber (December 9, 1868 – January 29, 1934) was a German chemist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for developing a method of synthesizing ammonia using atmospheric nitrogen. This process in turn could be used to manufacture fertilizers, explosives, and various other nitrogenous chemicals. During World War I, this method kept the German army well supplied with ammunition. In addition, Haber headed the German effort to produce chlorine and other poisonous gases. After the war, he worked toward reintegrating the research of German scientists into the world community.
Despite Haber’s high standing in German science, his life was marked by profound tragedies. His first wife, unhappy with her marriage and with his work on chemical weapons, committed suicide in 1915. His second marriage, which lasted ten years, ended in divorce in 1927. After Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, the Nazis forced him to leave the country in 1933 because of his Jewish background, and he died in the process of emigration. Many of his relatives and other Jews were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps, gassed by Zyklon B, invented by scientists at the institute he had led. Later, his son Hermann committed suicide.
Haber was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland) to Siegfried and Paula Haber. His mother died in childbirth. His father was a prominent chemicals merchant in the town. He attended St. Elizabeth’s School in Breslau in his early years, during which time he developed an interest in chemistry. From 1886 until 1891, he studied at the University of Heidelberg under Robert Bunsen, at the University of Berlin in the group of A. W. Hofmann, and at the Technical College of Charlottenburg under Carl Liebermann. 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.
Teaching and research
For a period, Haber was uncertain about the direction of his career, but worked for a short time with Ludwig Knorr at the University of Jena, with whom he published some early research. In 1894, he accepted an assistantship under Hans Bunte at the Karlsruhe. In 1896, he was promoted to assistant professor, after the publication of his thesis on the oxidation of hydrocarbons. In 1898 he was granted an associate professorship, and in the same year published a text on electrochemistry. He married Clara Immerwahr in 1901, herself a chemist who had aspirations of accomplishment in the field. In 1906, Haber was made full professor of chemistry and electrochemistry, and director of an institute devoted to the study of these subjects. He remained there until 1911 when he assumed the directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry in Berlin, where he remained for 22 years.
Haber devoted much of his time to research in electrochemistry. He invented a glass electrode and studied energy loss in steam engines and electric motors. He also explained the structure of the flame of a Bunsen burner, demonstrating the different reactions that occur in the flame’s core and in its outer sheath.
Synthesis of ammonia
The work for which he is best known, the production of ammonia gas from atmospheric nitrogen, did not begin until 1905. In that year, he published a book on the thermodynamics of gases that contained information on the production of ammonia at temperatures exceeding one thousand degrees centigrade, using iron as a catalyst. He improved this process, in collaboration with Robert Le Rossignol, by having the reaction take place at pressures of 150 to 200 atmospheres, and at a more practical temperature of five hundred degrees Celsius, using the element osmium as a catalyst. In 1909 Haber and Rossignol demonstrated this process to BASF, the chemical manufacturer. The company was persuaded of its feasibility, and assigned two scientists, Carl Bosch and Alwin Mittasch, to make improvements. Osmium, a rare and costly metal, was replaced by iron alloyed with a variety of compounds. By 1913 industrial facilities were producing several tons of ammonia per day using Haber’s methods.
World War I
The Haber process was perfected just before Germany went to war with neighboring European countries and the United States. Ammonia could be used as a starting material for the production of high-yield explosives, and Germany’s war effort was considerably enhanced by its ability to produce armaments from atmospheric nitrogen, particularly when supplies of mineral nitrates that it had depended on for the same purpose were cut off due to the blockade of German shipping by the Allied forces.
Haber at this time became engaged in the production of chemical weapons and supervised the use of chlorine gas against Germany’s adversaries, even though most nations, including Germany itself, had signed a treaty banning the arming of projectiles with poison gas. The Germans circumvented this restriction by using gas canisters on the ground, and relying on the wind to spread the gas. The use of these weapons had only mixed success, and Germany’s advantage quickly disappeared as all sides began to produce chemical weapons and gas masks for the protection of troops.
In 1915, Haber’s wife Clara, who had expressed dissatisfaction with her marriage and her career and disappointment with her husband’s work on chemical weapons, committed suicide. This did not dampen Haber’s enthusiasm for the war effort. 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.
In 1917 Haber married Charlotte Nathan and the couple had two children before the marriage ended in divorce in 1927.
Immediately after the war, Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the synthesis of ammonia. The Haber-Bosch process was a milestone in industrial chemistry because it provided a way to produce nitrogenous products—such as fertilizers, explosives, and chemical feedstocks—without relying on natural deposits, especially sodium nitrate (caliche), of which Chile was a major producer.
Haber made efforts to reintegrate the work of German scientists into the world community in the aftermath of World War I. He was able to obtain funding from the Rockefeller Foundation for some of these scientists. For six years beginning in 1920, he devoted himself to extracting gold from sea water to help Germany pay back its war debts. He found, however, that the percentage of gold was too small to make the process economically viable. During the same decade, 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 as a tool of mass execution in the German death camps of World War II.
Some believe that Haber continued research into chemical armaments after World War I, using another scientist as a front.
When Adolph Hitler tightened his grip on Germany and began his crusade against the world’s Jews, Haber began to feel increasing pressure to step down from his position as director of the institute. He was prohibited from hiring Jewish staff, a restriction that finally sealed his break with the German government. During this time, his life was tumultuous and filled with uncertainty. He remarked in his last year in Germany:
I fight with ebbing strength against my four enemies: insomnia, the economic claims of my divorced wife, my lack of confidence in the future, and awareness of the grave mistakes I have committed…(Lehrer, 2000).
Haber left Germany in 1933, having secured a position in Cambridge, England, but upon his arrival found that British scientists still harbored hostility toward him for his work during World War I. He then received an invitation to join an institute in Palestine, but poor health precluded his acceptance of the position. He died of heart failure, aged 65, in a hotel in Basel, on his way to a convalescent retreat in Switzerland.
Haber’s immediate family also left Germany. His second wife Charlotte, with their two children, settled in England. Haber’s son Hermann, from his first marriage, immigrated to the United States during World War II. He committed suicide in 1946. Members of Haber’s extended family are said to have died in German concentration camps.
Portrayal in drama
A fictional portrait of Haber’s life, and in particular his longtime relationship with Albert Einstein, appears in Vern Thiessen’s 2003 play, Einstein’s Gift. Thiessen portrays Haber as a tragic figure who strives unsuccessfully throughout his life to evade both his Jewish background and the moral implications of his scientific contributions.
Haber’s tremendous contribution to the welfare of humanity in terms of the production of fertilizer is balanced on the negative side by his support of the German war effort in World War I and the many lives that were lost as a result. His change of heart came as Hitler began a crackdown on Jewish scientists, which offended even Haber’s thick-skinned sensibilities. He was in no danger himself, as his record of support for the German war machine established credentials that even Hitler could not deny. His failing health, and the hostility his armament work engendered in the scientific community at large, prevented his full rehabilitation. But unlike some of his colleagues, such as Max Plank and Werner Heisenberg, he withdrew his support from Nazi-controlled Germany of the 1930s. In his personal life, he left a trail of misery in the form of a wife and a son who committed suicide, a divorce and the deaths of relatives in concentration camps through the technological innovations that he pioneered.