Wroclaw, Poland


Fritz Haber

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Fritz Haber


December 9, 1868

Breslau, Prussia


29 January 1934 (aged 65)

Basel, Switzerland




Physical chemistry


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

Haber process

Born-Haber cycle


Haber-Weiss reaction

Chemical warfare


Notable awards

Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1918)


Clara Immerwahr (1901-1915; her death; 1 child)

Charlotte Nathan (1917-1927; divorced; 2 children)

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. The food production for half the world's current population depends on this method for producing fertilizer. 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.

Early life, education and early career

Haber was born in Breslau,Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland), into a Hasidic Jewish family. He was the son of Paula and Siegfried Haber, who were first cousins.[1] His family was one of the oldest families of that town.[2] Haber later converted from strict Judaism to Lutheranism. 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. 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, Fritz Haber 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.[3]

He was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work (he actually received the award in 1919).[4]

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 tons (employing 60,000 workers and selling at $45/ton) in 1925 to just 800,000 tons, produced by 14,133 workers, and selling at $19/ton in 1934.[5] The annual world production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is currently more than 100 million tons. The food base of half of the current world population is based on the Haber-Bosch process.[6]

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).[7][8]

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 adsorbent 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 its proscription by the Hague Convention of 1907 (to which Germany was a signatory)[citation needed]. Future Nobel laureates James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn served as gas troops in Haber's unit.

Gas warfare in World War 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." This was an example of the ethical dilemmas facing chemists at that time.[9]

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 A, which was used as an insecticide, especially as a fumigant in grain stores.[10]


In the 1920s, Haber searched exhaustively 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 reported by earlier researchers, and that gold extraction from sea water was uneconomic.[11]

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 prohibited from working in that field, he left Germany in 1933. 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 29 January 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.[12] He was cremated and his ashes, together with Clara's ashes, were buried in Basel's Hornli Cemetery.[13] He bequeathed his extensive private library to the Sieff Institute.

Personal life and family

Clara Immerwahr

He married Clara Immerwahr in 1901. Clara was also a chemist and the first woman to earn a PhD at the University of Breslau. She was opposed to Haber's work in chemical warfare. On 2 May 1915, following an argument with Haber over the subject, she committed suicide in their garden shooting herself in the heart with his service revolver, possibly in response to his having personally overseen the first successful use of chlorine at the Second Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915.[14][15] That same morning, Haber left for the Eastern Front to oversee gas release against the Russians.[16] Haber left behind his grieving 13-year-old son Herrman, who had been the one to discover his dying mother.[17]

Haber married his second wife, Charlotte Nathan, in 1917. The couple had two children. Like Haber, both of his wives had been Jewish-born converts to Christianity.[18]

After his death, Haber's immediate family left Germany. His second wife, Charlotte, with their 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 because of his shame over his father's chemical warfare work.[19]

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).[20]


Haber received much criticism for his involvement in the development of chemical weapons in pre-World War II Germany, both from contemporaries and from modern-day scientists.[21] The research results show the ambivalence of his scientific activity: on the one hand, development of ammonia synthesis for the manufacture of explosives and of a technical process for the industrial manufacture and use of poison gas in warfare; but on the other hand, development of an industrial process without which the food supply for today's world population would be greatly diminished.

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[22] 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.[23] 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.[24][25]

In November 2008 Haber was again played by Anton Lesser in Einstein and Eddington.[26]

In January 2012, Haber was featured on an episode of Radiolab.[27]

In 2012, Haber was featured on an episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True.