Fritz Haber: one of the most influential scientists you’ve probably never heard of
Fritz Haber is one of history’s most complicated scientists. His work led to vast improvements in crop yields that fed millions of people. His work also led to the suffering and excruciating deaths of millions.
Fritz’s story challenges us to think about what level of responsibility scientists should bear for the impact of their work.
Source: Nobel Prize
Fritz Haber was born in 1868 in Breslau, Germany. He grew up in Breslau’s Jewish community and at 23 years old earnt his PhD in Chemistry. In 1900 he married Clara Immerwahr, an established chemist herself. Two years later they had their son, Hermann.
The Science of Food Production
In the early 1900s, fear of the Malthusian theory gripped the world. Thomas Malthus theorised that population growth would overtake food production growth. Ultimately resulting in widespread starvation and death. Fritz was one of many scientists focused on improving food production to avoid widespread starvation.
Nitrogen has always been one of the greatest limiting factors in food production. Peasant farmers would traditionally apply animal and human manure to soil to increase nitrogen.
This all changed in 1909. Fritz Haber discovered a way to use extreme heat from coal to capture atmospheric nitrogen and convert it to ammonia. And so the synthetic fertilizer was born.
Synthetic fertilizers increased the world’s cereal production seven-fold during the twentieth century. Fritz’s invention was said to make ‘bread from air’.
Daniel Charles estimates that half of all the nitrogen in our bodies comes from synthetic fertilizers.
The Science of War
Fritz Haber’s story takes a turn for the dark and destructive side during World War One. In a display of his devoted patriotism, Fritz led a team of chemists to create a new chemical weapon for the German armies. The result: Chlorine Gas.
On April 22, 1915, Haber personally oversaw the first use of his new invention during the Second Battle of Ypres. The Germans released 400 tons of chlorine gas at the front line. Six thousand French and African soldiers were dead within ten minutes.
Devastated by what her husband had done, Clara shot herself with Fritz’s service revolver a week after Ypres.
Three years later, in 1918, Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
In the 1920’s Fritz worked on a project to use cyanide to kill insects and reduce grain loss during storage. After years of work, Haber and his team created Zyklon B.
The Final Twist
Fritz’s crucial role in Germany’s WW1 efforts and his conversion to Christianity meant nothing to the Nazis. Fritz was the target of Nazi attacks in 1933 and was forced out of Germany. Fritz Haber died a year later in a hotel room in Switzerland.
Yet Fritz’s chemical creations continued to shape the world beyond his death.
In the most twisted and tragic irony: the Nazis chose Zyklon B as their weapon of mass murder in the Aushwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek concentration camps. Beyond the grave, Fritz Haber played a role in the mass murder of 1.2 million people; including members of his extended family.
Fritz Haber’s story is dark and complex. Fritz used his knowledge and skill to radically improved crop yields; feeding millions of people. But he also to waged war; both directly and indirectly killing millions.
Fritz Haber is part of the reason you and I, and 7.5 billion people around the world are alive and fed. But how do we reconcile his enthusiastic creation of chemical weapons?
Haber was responsible for the creation of Zyklon B. But is he responsible for how it was used after his death?
Is the pursuit of scientific knowledge ever value or consequence free?
This story was adapted from Chapter 5 of Haroon Akram-Lodhi’s book Hungry for Change: Farmers, Food Justice and the Agrarian Question
You can also learn more about Fritz Haber from Daniel Charles’ book Between Genius and Genocide: The tragedy of Fritz Haber, Father of Chemical Warfare