Fritz Jakob Haber, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918

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Fritz Jakob Haber, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918

Birthdate: (65)
Birthplace: Breslau, Prussia
Death: Died in Basel, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Stadt, Switzerland
Cause of death: Heart failure
Place of Burial: Basel, Schweitz
Immediate Family:

Son of Siegfried Haber and Paula Haber
Husband of Clara Haber, Dr. phil.
Ex-husband of Henriette Charlotte Haber
Father of Hermann Haber; Eva Charlotte Lewis and Ludwig Fritz "Lutz" Haber
Half brother of Helene Weigert; Frieda Glücksmann and Elsbeth (Else) Caroline Freyhahn

Managed by: Private User
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About Fritz Jakob Haber, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918

Fritz Haber

Born 9 December 1868, Wrocław, Germany. Died 29 January 1934 (aged 65), Basel, Switzerland. Nationality: German. Fields: Physical chemistry. Institutions: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, University of Karlsruhe. Alma mater: University of Heidelberg, Humboldt University of Berlin, Technical University of Berlin Doctoral advisor: Robert Bunsen. Known for: Fertilisers, Explosives, Haber process, Haber-Weiss reaction, chemical warfare. Notable awards: 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 for synthesizing ammonia, important for fertilizers and explosives. Haber, along with Max Born, proposed the Born–Haber cycle as a method for evaluating the lattice energy of an ionic solid. He has also been described as the "father of chemical warfare" for his work developing and deploying chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I.


Haber was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), into a Hasidic family. His was one of the oldest families of that town. Haber later converted from strict Judaism to Christianity. 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 (today the Humboldt 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. Clara was also a chemist and an opponent of Haber's work in chemical warfare. Following an argument with Haber over the subject, she committed suicide. Their son, Hermann, born in 1902, would later also commit suicide because of his shame over his father's chemical warfare work. 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 at University of Karlsruhe from 1894 to 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 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 (and almost unique) producer. Naturally extracted nitrate production in Chile fell from 2.5 million metric tonnes (employing 60,000 workers and selling at $45/tonne) in 1925 to just 800,000 tonnes, produced by 14,133 workers, and selling at $19/tonne in 1934.

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. In 1953, this institute was renamed for him. He is sometimes credited, incorrectly, with first synthesizing MDMA (which was first synthesized by Merck KGaA chemist Anton Köllisch in 1912).

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 despite being proscribed by the Hague Convention of 1907 (to which Germany was a signatory). Future Nobel laureates James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn served as gas troops in Haber's unit.

Gas warfare in WW I was, in a sense, the war of the chemists, with Haber pitted against French Nobel laureate chemist Victor Grignard. Regarding war and peace, Haber once said, "During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country."

His wife Clara, a fellow chemist and the first woman to earn a Ph.D at the University of Breslau, committed suicide with his service revolver 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 but also in the gas chambers [at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and other camps] in the Nazi campaign aimed at extermination of Jews, Gypsies and others viewed by the Third Reich as inferior races or socially unwanted.


In the 1920s, Haber exhaustively searched for a method to extract gold from sea water, and published a number of scientific papers on the subject. After years of research, he concluded that the concentration of gold dissolved in sea water was much lower than those concentrations reported by earlier researchers, and that gold extraction from sea water was uneconomic.

Haber's genius was recognized by the Nazis, who offered him special funding to continue his research on weapons. As a result of fellow Jewish scientists having already been expelled from working in that field, he left Germany in 1933. 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 eventual vilification of his heritage by the Nazi regime. He moved to Cambridge, England, along with his assistant J J Weiss, for a few months, during which time Ernest Rutherford pointedly refused to shake hands with him, due to his involvement in poison gas warfare. Haber was offered by Chaim Weizmann the position of director at the Sieff Research Institute (now the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot, in Mandate Palestine, and accepted it. He started his voyage to what is today Israel in January 1934, after recovering from a heart attack. His ill health overpowered him and on January 29, 1934, at the age of 65, he died of heart failure in a Basel hotel, where he was resting on his way to the Middle East. 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, later becoming The Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel.

Haber's immediate family also left Germany. His second wife, Charlotte, with their two children, settled in England. Haber's son from his first marriage, Hermann, 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).


Haber received much criticism for his involvement in the development of chemical weapons in pre-World War II Germany both by contemporaries and by modern-day scientists. The research results show the ambiguity of his scientific activity: On the one hand, through the development of ammonia synthesis (to manufacture explosive) or a technical process for the manufacture and use of poison gas in warfare as it has become possible on an industrial basis. On the other hand, without this knowledge and ability the diet of today's humanity would not be possible. The annual world production of synthesized nitrogen fertilizer is currently more than 100 million tons. The food base of a half of the current world population is based on the Haber-Bosch process.

Further reading

Albarelli JR., H.P.: A Terrible Mistake:The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments - Trine Day LLC, 1st ed., 2009, ISBN 0977795373 Bernstein, Barton J.: Birth of the U.S. biological warfare program. Scientific American 256: 116 - 121, 1987. Geissler, Erhard: Biologische Waffen, nicht in Hitlers Arsenalen. Biologische und Toxin-Kampfmittel in Deutschland von 1915 - 1945. LIT-Verlag, Berlin-Hamburg-Münster, 2nd ed., 1999. ISBN 3825829553. Geissler, Erhard: Biological warfare activities in Germany 1923 - 1945. In: Geissler, Erhard and Moon, John Ellis van Courtland, eds., Biological warfare from the Middle Ages to 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0198295790. Maddrell, Paul: Spying on Science: Western Intelligence in Divided Germany 1945 - 1961. Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0199267502. 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.

BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play has broadcast two plays on the life of Fritz Haber. This is the description of the first 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 Jewish.”

The second was entitled "The Greater Good" and was first broadcast on 23 October 2008. It was directed by Celia de Wolff and written by Justin Hopper, and starred Anton Lesser as Haber. It explored his work on gas warfare during the First World War and the strain it put on his wife Clara (Lesley Sharp), concluding with her suicide and its cover-up by the authorities. Other cast included Dan Starkey as Haber's research associate Otto Sackur, Stephen Critchlow as Colonel Peterson, Conor Tottenham as Haber's son Hermann, Malcolm Tierney as General Falkenhayn and Janice Acquah as Zinaide.

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.

In November 2008 Haber was again played by Anton Lesser in Einstein and Eddington.

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Fritz Jakob Haber, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918's Timeline

December 9, 1868
Breslau, Prussia
Age 33
Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany
Age 49
July 12, 1921
Age 52
Berlin, Berlin, Germany
January 29, 1934
Age 65
Basel, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Stadt, Switzerland
February 1934
Age 65
Basel, Schweitz