Famous Chemists – Fritz Haber

The Haber process – well where do I start – it’s probably the most important industrial process of the last century and I could list what the syllabus requires us to impart to our students, that’ll be equations (don’t forget reversible arrows), conditions, uses of ammonia ….. but really how are we ever going to convert the masses when you literally watch them fall asleep before your eyes – so what’s a chemistry teacher to do?

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Open the classroom door and bring in Fritz Haber – the man who got the Nobel prize in 1918 for the process. But hold on, why is there only fleeting acknowledgement to him on the Nobel website? Well, that’s because Fritz Haber was a very complicated individual. We’d like to think that Fritz spent his life pondering the importance of fixing nitrogen to allow us to grow more crops and feed the growing population, but no – Haber was too busy developing chemical weapons in WW1 including the use of the chemicals chlorine and bromine. After the war he tried to raise funds to pay off the German reparation payments by unsuccessfully attempting to extract gold from seawater.

Haber was a patriotic German, to the extent that his wife Clara’s opposition to his research into chemical weapons and her subsequent suicide did not sway his views. However, Fritz Haber was also a Jew and this began to play an important part in his destiny with the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s. Haber’s self confidence and ambition began to falter as he was singled out for his Jewish heritage. He had to leave Germany and was able to secure a post at Cambridge university but here he was given the cold shoulder by other eminent scientists unhappy with his role in Germany in WW1. Now it all could have ended there with Haber heading off to a research institute in Palestine where he passed away quietly en route in 1934. However, Fritz Haber’s legacy chillingly did not to end with his death. It turns out that some of the research he had carried out earlier in his career was developed by the Nazis to produce the deadly gas Zyklon B which was to be used in the gas chambers. It is thought that some of Haber’s relatives died in the concentration camps- possibly in gas chambers.

This is one of the posts that I had thought about when I initially decided to blog but I have put it on the back burner for a while. Why? Well, the story of Fritz Haber made me think of the role of scientists in today’s society and especially if in a country at war or considering it. Was Fritz Haber’s ambition and patriotism so unusual and are all scientists morally upstanding ? What happens if you pick the wrong side, are you consigned to a damning legacy ? I still don’t know the answer and maybe Fritz Haber’s legacy is that he makes scientists feel uncomfortable.

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