Fritz Haber; Hero or Villain?

The Haber process is one of the biggest industrial mechanisms developed during the last century and is absolutely crucial to many other industries. It was originally devised during the First World War by the German Chemist Fritz Haber. He was born in 1868 to a Jewish family but as a young man claimed to be more ‘German’ than any religion. He studied Chemistry at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin and met his future wife Clara, also a talented Chemist. He was a gifted scientist and at the outbreak of the war he devoted his talents to his beloved country, even being given a military position. Along with Karl Bosch he worked on a process for converting a mixture of Nitrogen and Hydrogen gases into Ammonia. As the mechanism is an equilibrium, ammonia is notoriously difficult to make, but through countless experiments Haber came up with the optimum conditions of temperature and pressure and the use of catalysts to make the process viable. This is a chemical needed to make fertilizers and explosives, both of which were essential during the war effort due to the blockades of food into the country. It is an industry that now is involved in at least half the world’s food production and he received the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1918 for his contributions.

But he also worked on the development of poison gases that were subsequently used in the horrific gas attacks in places like Ypres, killing and severely injuring many thousands of soldiers. It was during this time that his wife, a pacifist and a believer in using her chemical knowledge for good, committed suicide in their garden. Often called ‘the father of chemical warfare’ and highly decorated for his efforts during the war he continued working on gases to be used in war even after it was over. Ironically as the Nazi party began to influence his country, Germany shunned him due to his Jewish background and he was given a post at Cambridge University. He became ill and was on a journey back to Switzerland to recuperate when he died in 1934. However, sadly the gases he had developed were used to kill many thousands of people including members of his own family in the gas chambers of the concentration camps.