Fritz Haber (1868-1934) won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for developing the Haber process, which produced ammonia. Haber directed Germany's chemical warfare during World War II.
One the foremost chemists of his generation, Fritz Haber's legacy did not end with his considerable achievements of both theoretical and practical value in the fields of physical chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and engineering. Perhaps of even greater importance were his tireless attempts to promote communication and understanding between scientific communities across the globe. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, under his direction, became famous in the years after World War I as a leading center of research whose seminars attracted scientists from all nations. In his most outstanding contribution to chemistry—for which he won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry—Haber found an inexpensive method for synthesizing large quantities of ammonia from its constituent elements nitrogen and hydrogen. A steady supply of ammonia made possible the industrial production of fertilizer and explosives.
Haber was born on December 9, 1868, in Breslau (now known as Wroclaw, Poland), the only child of first cousins Siegfried Haber and Paula Haber. Haber's mother died in childbirth. In 1877, his father, a prosperous importer of dyes and pigments, married Hedwig Hamburger, who bore him three daughters. Haber and his father had a distant relationship, but his stepmother treated him kindly. From a local grade school, Haber went to the St. Elizabeth Gymnasium (high school) in Breslau. There he developed an abiding love of literature, particularly the voluminous writings of Goethe, which inspired him to write verse. Haber also enjoyed acting, considering it as a profession early on before settling on chemistry.
After entering the University of Berlin in 1886 to study chemistry, Haber transferred after a semester to the University of Heidelberg. There, under the supervision of Robert Bunsen (who gave his name to the burner used in laboratories everywhere), Haber delved into physical chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Getting his Ph.D. in 1891, Haber tried working as an industrial laboratory chemist but found its rigid routines too intellectually confining. He decided instead to enter the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, in order to learn about the most advanced chemical engineering techniques of his time, studying under Georg Lunge.
Haber then tried, without success, to work in his father's business, opting after six months to return to academia. In 1894, after a brief stint at the University of Jena, he took an assistant teaching position with Hans Bunte, professor of chemical technology at the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule in Baden. Haber enjoyed Karlsruhe's emphasis on preparing its students for technical positions, stressing the connections between science and industry. His studies led him to investigate the breakdown at high temperatures of organic compounds known as hydrocarbons, an area pioneered by the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot. After correcting and systematizing Berthelot's findings, Haber's results, published in 1896 as a book entitled Experimental Studies on the Decomposition and Combustion of Hydro-carbons, led to his appointment that year as lecturer, a step below associate professor.
Haber married another chemist, Clara Immerwahr, in 1901. They had a son, Hermann, born in June, 1902. While a lecturer, Haber moved his experimental focus from organic chemistry to physical chemistry. Although he lacked a formal education in this area, with the help of a colleague, Hans Luggin, he began to research the effect of electrical currents on fuel cells and the loss of efficiency in steam engines through heat. Haber also devised electrical instruments to measure the loss of oxygen in burning organic compounds, outlining this subject in a book published in 1898, Outline of Technical Electrochemistry on a Theoretical Basis, which earned him a promotion to associate professor. Haber's exceptional abilities as a researcher, which included his precision as a mathematician and writer, induced a leading German science group to send him in 1902 to survey America's approach to chemistry in industry and education.
Haber published a third book, Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions, in 1905. In the volume he applied thermodynamic theory on the behavior of gases to establish industrial requirements for creating reactions. His clear exposition gave him an international reputation as an expert in adapting science to technology. That same year, Haber began his groundbreaking work on the synthesis of ammonia. Europe's growing population had created a demand for an increase in agricultural production. Nitrates, used in industrial fertilizer, required ammonia for their manufacture. Thus, Haber's goal to find new ways to fabricate ammonia grew out of a very pressing need. Other scientists had been synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen but at temperatures of one thousand degrees centigrade, which were not practical for industrial production. Haber was able to get the same reaction but at manageable temperatures of three hundred degrees centigrade.
The chemist Walther Nernst had obtained the synthesis of ammonia with gases at very high pressures. He also had disputed Haber's results for his high-temperature reaction. Goaded by Nernst's skepticism, Haber executed high-pressure experiments and confirmed his earlier calculations. He then combined Nernst's technique with his own to greatly increase the efficiency of the process. To augment the yield even further, Haber found a superior catalyst for the reaction and redirected the heat it produced back into the system to save on the expenditure of energy.
The final step of bringing Haber's work into the factory fell to the engineer Karl Bosch, whose company, Badische Anilin-und Sodafabrik (BASF), had supported Haber's research. After Bosch solved some key problems such as designing containers that could withstand a corrosive process over a period of time, full-scale industrial output began in 1910. Today the Haber-Bosch process is an industry standard for the mass production of ammonia.
In 1912 Haber was appointed director of the newly formed Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry at Dahlheim, just outside of Berlin; Richard Willstätter and Ernst Beckmann joined as codirectors. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Haber volunteered his laboratory and his expertise to help Germany. At first, he developed alternate sources of anti-freeze. Then, the German War Office consulted both Nernst and Haber about developing a chemical weapon that would drive the enemy out of their trenches in order to resume open warfare. In January, 1915, the German Army began production of a chlorine gas that Haber's team had invented. On April 11, 1915, in the first chemical offensive ever, five thousand cylinders of chlorine gas blanketed 3.5 miles of enemy territory near Ypres, Belgium, resulting in 150, 000 deaths.
Haber hated the war but hoped that in developing the gases he would help to bring it to a speedy end by breaking the deadlock of trench warfare. His wife, however, denounced his work as a perversion of science. After a violent argument with Haber in 1915, she committed suicide. Haber was married again in 1917 to Charlotte Nathan, who bore him a son and a daughter. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1927.
In 1916 Haber was appointed chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, overseeing every detail in that department. His process for developing nitrates from ammonia became incorporated into Germany's manufacture of explosives. Because of his duties as supervisor of chemical warfare, American, French, and British scientists vehemently contested his 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Although many of the Allied scientists had also contributed to the war effort, they charged that Haber was a war criminal for developing chemical weapons.
Since the 1918 prize had been reserved for until after the war ended, Haber accepted his Nobel Prize in November, 1919. Unquestionably, Haber had invented, in the words of the prize's presenter, A. G. Ekstrand of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, "an exceedingly important means of improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind." Yet the controversy over his award, on top of Germany's defeat, his first wife's suicide, and his developing diabetes, depressed Haber greatly.
Nevertheless, Haber continued to turn his technical acumen to patriotic ends. In 1920, to help Germany pay off the onerous war reparations that the Versailles Treaty had imposed, Haber headed a doomed attempt to recover gold from seawater. Unfortunately, he had based his project on unverified nineteenth-century mineral analyses that had grossly overestimated the quantities for gold. It turned out after several abortive sea voyages that there was simply not enough gold present in seawater to make refining profitable. However, Haber did perfect a very precise method for measuring concentrations of gold.
Haber had much greater success as continuing director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. His proven leadership ability attracted some of the best talent in the world to his laboratory in Karlsruhe and to the Institute, where in 1929 fully half of the members were foreigners from a dozen countries.
In 1919 he began the Haber Colloquium, an ongoing seminar that during the postwar years brought together the best minds in chemistry and physics, among them Niels Bohr, Peter Debye, Otto Meyerhof, and Otto Warburg. Haber's sharp wit, critical intelligence and broad knowledge of science were greatly appreciated at the seminars. When he ceased attending regularly, they became markedly less popular. Haber traveled widely to foster greater cooperation between nations. As an example, he helped establish the Japan Institute in that nation to foster shared cultural interests with other countries. From 1929 to 1933 he occupied Germany's seat on the Union Internationale de Chimie.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Kaiser Institute fell on hard times. After receiving a demand from the minister of art, science, and popular education to dismiss all Jewish workers at the institute, Haber—a Jew himself—resigned on April 30, 1933. He wrote in his letter of resignation that having always selected his collaborators on the basis of their intelligence and character, he could not conceive of having to change so successful a method.
Haber fled Germany for England, accepting the invitation of his colleague William J. Pope to work in Cambridge, where he stayed for four months. Chaim Weitzmann, a chemist who would become the first president of Israel, offered Haber the position of director in the physical chemistry department of the Daniel Sieff Research Institute at Rehovot, in what is now Israel. Despite ill health, Haber accepted and in January, 1934, after recovering from a heart attack, began the trip. Resting on the way in Basel, Switzerland, he died on January 29, 1934. His friend and colleague Willstätter gave the memorial speech at his funeral. On the first anniversary of his death, over five hundred men and women from cultural societies across Germany converged on the institute—despite Nazi attempts at intimidation—to pay homage to Haber.
Further Reading on Fritz Haber
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 5, Scribner, 1972, pp. 620-623.
Farber, Eduard, Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry, 1901-1961, Abelard-Schuman, 1953, revised 1963, pp. 71-75.
Wasson, Tyler, editor, Nobel Prize Winners, H. W. Wilson, 1987, pp. 402-404.