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. 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, who also held a PhD in chemistry, 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.
He is sometimes credited, incorrectly, with first synthesizing MDMA.
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 only) 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, 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.
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.
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 of Nazi persecution of persons of Jewish ethnicity. 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, and considered a position at the Sieff Research Institute (now the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot, in Mandate Palestine, but never settled anywhere permanently. In January 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 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, 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. 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).
BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play broadcast a play telling the life of Fritz Haber. This is the description 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 non-Aryan.
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.