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Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber in 1918.
BornDecember 9, 1868
Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland)
DiedJanuary 29 1934 (aged 65)
Basel, Switzerland
FieldPhysical chemistry
InstitutionsSwiss Federal Institute of Technology
University of Karlsruhe
Alma materUniversity of Heidelberg, University of Berlin
Technical College of Charlottenburg (today the Technical University of Berlin)
Academic advisor  Robert Bunsen
Known forFertilisers, Explosives, Haber process, Haber-Weiss reaction
Notable prizes 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 of synthetic ammonia, important for fertilisers and explosives. He is also credited as the "father of chemical warfare" for his work developing and deploying chlorine and other poison gases during World War I.

His wife, Clara Immerwahr, a graduated 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 April 22, 1915.[1]

Despite his contributions to the German war effort, Haber was forced to emigrate from Germany during 1933 by the Nazis because of his Jewish ancestry; many of his relatives were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps, gassed by Zyklon B, which he invented. He died during the process of emigration.

He is sometimes credited, incorrectly, with first synthesizing MDMA.[2]



He was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland) to Siegfried and Paula Haber. 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 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 in Karlsruhe from 1894 until 1911, he and Carl Bosch developed the Haber process, which is the catalytic formation of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen under conditions of high 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 producer. The sudden availability of cheap nitrogenous fertilizer is credited with averting a Malthusian catastrophe, or population crisis.

He was also active in the research of combustion reactions, the separation of gold from sea water, adsorption effects, and electrochemistry. A large part of his work from 1911 to 1933 was done at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem.

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.

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 graduated 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 April 22, 1915.[1] She shot herself in the heart on May 15, 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 programme, in the Nazi extermination camps.[3]


In an effort to become more acceptable to a society increasingly hostile toward Jews, Haber converted to Christianity. Despite his newly acquired faith he was forced to leave Germany in 1933 because the Nazi party accepted the same irreversible measure of Jewishness as the Jews themselves: a person born to a Jewish mother is a Jew. Ironically, his Nobel Prize winning work in chemistry, and subsequent contributions to Germany's war efforts in the form of chemical fertitizers, 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, and considered a position in Rehovot, Palestine British Mandate (now Israel), but never settled anywhere permanently. In the winter of 1934, at the age of 65, Fritz Haber died of heart failure in a Basel hotel, on his way to a Swiss convalescent retreat. He was cremated and his ashes, together with Clara's ashes, were buried in the Hornli Cemetery, at Basel. (Note: A photograph of their gravestone in Hornli Cemetery, Basel can be found in the book written by Stolzenberg.)

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 emigrated to the United States during World War II. He committed suicide in 1946. Members of Haber's extended family died in concentration camps, possibly gassed by Zyklon B. One of his children, Ludwig Fritz Haber, became an eminent historian of chemical warfare in World War I; in 1986 he published the book "The poisonous cloud".

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.


  1. ^ a b Hobbes, Nicholas (2003). Essential Militaria. Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1843542292. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ M. Szöllösi-Janze (2001). "Pesticides and war: the case of Fritz Haber". European Review 9: 97-108. doi:10.1017/S1062798701000096.

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
  • Nobel e-Museum - Biography of Fritz Haber
  • Photographs of Fritz Haber's life
  • A short biography of Fritz Haber, by Bretislav Friedrich
  • Biographical Film about Fritz Haber
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Nobel Prizes - Fritz Haber
  • "The Synthesis of Ammonia from its Elements", Nobel Lecture, June 2, 1920

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Fritz_Haber". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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