Confession #1: My taking up this subject was inspired by an episode of Radiolab, which is the best radio program in the history of the universe. I have referred to it here before. You can find the episode about the Haber’s life among the podcasts in their archive. http://www.radiolab.org/archive/
(If you are not a fan of the show, become one. It will enrich your mind and your conversation.)
Confession #2: Until I learned about him on a Radiolab, I had never heard of Fritz Haber. Now that I know his story, I can’t figure out how to think about him.
Here he is. Tell me what you think.
Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, Prussia (later, Germany) on the 9th of December 1868 to a prosperous German-Jewish couple. The family owed a lot of its wellbeing to an 1812 edict that gave Jews something approaching full citizenship. Haber’s parents were first cousins who married over the objections of his grandparents.
Fritz’s mother died three weeks after his birth, which devastated his father and left him to be cared for by his mother’s and father’s sisters. After that, though eventually he got along well with his stepmother and half sisters, his relationship with his father was always contentious. The young man grew up to be fiercely patriotic and determined to succeed.
Despite his fraught relationship with his papa, the brilliant young student prepared to go into his father’s successful business, which specialized in dyes, paints and pharmaceuticals. He studied chemistry in the best universities of Germany, including a stint as a student of Robert Bunsen, of “burner” fame. He earned a PhD cum laude in chemistry at the age of 23.
The good work
After bouncing around in several minor academic posts, he tackled the most serious problem facing his country—starvation. I know, “starving Germans” is not a phrase the leaps to mind these days, but at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the world food supply was quite limited, putting many people, including Germans, at risk. What was needed was nitrogen to boost agricultural yields. At the point, most fertilizer came from animal waste—bat guano, that sort of thing.
The air is full of nitrogen, but its chemical nature made producing artificial fertilizer difficult in the extreme. (Nitrogen is trivalent. It fiercely clings to itself rather than willingly forming molecules more easily collected.) The stubborn element met its match in Haber. With monumental persistence, he devised a process involving heat and high pressure that forced nitrogen to combine with hydrogen and form ammonia. Voila! Thanks to Haber and his colleague Carl Bosch, the world food supply soared. “Bread from the Air” they called it. Today, half the world population owes its existence to that boost in agriculture production. HALF of the seven billion people on this planet (or their grandparents) would have starved to death without Haber. No kidding.
Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery.
The bad work
The other side of the story is grim. Remember that I said Haber was fiercely patriotic? By the time he was headed for that Nobel Prize, Germany was at war. Despite the Hague Convention of 1907, which proscribed chemical weapons, Haber had a killer of an idea. As a Captain with the Chemistry Section of the German Ministry of War, he lead a team that weaponized chlorine gas. He went in person to the Second Battle of Ypres in April of 1915. There he personally oversaw the release of a green cloud that destroyed somewhere around 6000 lives; most died in the first ten minutes.
Haber considered this a great achievement. When he got home to Germany, he threw himself a celebratory dinner party. At this point, he was married to Clara Immerwahr. They had a thirteen-year-old son. Clara was a remarkable scientist in her own right—one of the first women on the planet to earn a PhD in chemistry. She was so appalled by what her husband had done that after the dinner party, when Fritz had gone to sleep, she took his service revolver out to their back yard and shot herself in heart. Their son reached her before she died.
The very next morning, Fritz left his son and dead wife to return to the front so he could continue to use his gas to fight the war.
When Germany lost, Fritz was devastated. He spent years trying to extract gold from the ocean to pay their war reparations. But then, with the rise of Hitler, despite the fact that he had served Germany in the previous war and had converted to Christianity, he was not allowed to hold a university post. He left for England, where his wartime activities made him a pariah. He eventually made his way to Switzerland where very soon he died in 1934.
After his death, the most chillingly ironic thing happened. In the 1920’s Haber and his team had developed a cyanide-based gas used to fumigate grain stores. Zyklon-A was formulated with a telltale smell that would keep people safe from accidently inhaling it. In the 30’s, when the Nazis were looking for a mortal gas for their chambers of death, they reformulated Zyklon-A without the safety odor. Zyklon-B became the weapon of the Nazi Concentration Camps.
So what do you think? Was Fritz Haber a good person or a bad person? Was he a boon to humankind or a curse?
Annamaria - Monday