Episode #1 of the course “Unknown Scientists Who Changed The World”
Fritz Haber’s legacy is a complicated one. This German chemist helped feed the world, but he also developed the first chemical weapon used in warfare. In fact, he is often referred to as the “father of chemical warfare.” Haber may have saved more lives than anyone else in human history, but he did so accidentally while trying to formulate new ways to kill people.
Haber was born in 1868 in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland). Although he was born into a well-off Jewish family, Haber identified strongly as German and less so as Jewish. He attended the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin to study chemistry, where he eventually received his doctorate. Haber was a true German patriot, but he was forced to flee the country he loved during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s due to his Jewish heritage. He died in Switzerland in 1934.
Haber is most linked to his invention of nitrogen fixing, a process that would soon change the world. Nitrogen fixing converts naturally-occurring nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia, an essential component in successful wheat growth. Before Haber, we did not know how to synthetically produce ammonia and therefore relied on its natural conversion to grow crops. This would have eventually become a problem as the world’s population ballooned from less than 2 billion in his time to the 7 billion people we have today. Haber’s intention was not to stave off world hunger, however—it was to help Germany produce explosives. Ammonia also happens to be the key component for nitric acid, an essential part of explosives.
Haber’s reputation grew, and during WWI, he was recruited to lead Germany’s gas warfare division. He developed chlorine gas bombs and later mustard gas. In a true sign of Haber’s complicated legacy, he won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for using chemistry to help humanity’s growing food crisis, but a year later he was charged with war crimes (although he was never prosecuted).
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