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Fritz Haber

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Fritz Haber (December 9, 1868 - January 29, 1934) received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his development of synthetic ammonia, which is important for fertilizers and explosives.

Early Life

Fritz Haber was born on December 9, 1868 in Breslau, Germany. He was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity at the age of twenty-three (#Tucker, 2006). He studied chemistry at the University of Heidelberg under Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, creator of the Bunsen Burner, and later at the University of Berlin and the Technical School at Charlottenburg (#Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, 1966). He returned to Breslau to work at his father's chemical business which spurred his interest in chemical technology. He took an assistantship at a University in 1894 and became a professor on completion of his thesis in 1896. He gained widespread acclaim in 1909 by inventing a new method for synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, which led to wide scale commercial production of ammonia (#Tucker, 2006). This breakthrough freed Germany from the need to import ammonia from abroad; this importation could easily have been halted by a sea blockade by the Allies during World War I. Ammonia was a central component of fertilizer and explosives.

Haber was next appointed to the position of director for the Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem, where he would remain until forced out of the country in 1933 due to Nazi Race Laws and his Jewish heritage.

Work on Chemical Weapons

When World War I broke out, Haber was appointed as a consultant for the German War Office (#Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, 1966). Haber convinced the German high command that the use of gas did not violate the Hague Convention because the French had attempted and failed to use gas; he also stated that gas warfare would save countless lives if it could bring an end to the war sooner than conventional fighting. He was convinced, even after the excruciating deaths he witnessed on the battlefield and in German concentration camps, where many of his family members met their end, that chemical warfare was more humane than shelling or flames and that it could shorten wars (#Tucker, 2006).

In 1914, Haber began working on placing chlorine into pressurized cylinders, releasing the gas and using the wind to carry it towards the enemy's trenches. Under Haber's direction, the German Army moved 1,600 large and 4,130 small steel cylinders filled with pressurized liquid chlorine to the front lines at the Ypres Salient. On Thursday April 22, 1915, the winds shifted and the Germans released the gas, which traveled across the field and into the trenches of French and Algerian troops, causing thousands of casualties (#Tucker, 2006).

Haber's wife Clara killed herself upon hearing about Haber's involvement in the attacks on the Ypres Salient (#Tucker, 2006).

Haber continued work on Chemical Weapons and in 1917 developed mustard gas. The Germans first used this again at Ypres in July of 1917, with devastating affects (#Tucker, 2006).

Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his synthesis of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, but with Adolf Hitler's rise to power, his time in Germany was limited. The Nazis moved to remove all Jews from university positions, and not even a German hero on the scale of Haber was immune. He resigned and took a post at University of Cambridge, England. He died suddenly on his way to Switzerland on January 29, 1934 at age 65 (#Tucker, 2006).


Tucker, Johnathon B. War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda. Pantheon Books, 2006.

From Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966. Online at Accessed on 1-23-07.

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