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Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew: A Biography (Stoltzenberg, Dietrich)



This biography describes the life of this extraordinary scientist in a compelling, non-judgmental narrative that tells his story—warts and knots included. Keywords (Audience): General Public
Chemical Education Today Vol. 83 No. 11 November 2006 Journal of Chemical Education 1605
Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate,
German, Jew: A Biography
by Dietrich Stoltzenberg
Chemical Heritage Foundation: Philadelphia, PA, 2004.
336 pp. ISBN 0941901246. $40
reviewed by Hal Harris
The Fritz Haber who inhabits our chemistry courses in
the Haber process for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen
and hydrogen and the Born–Haber cycle for rationalizing the
formation of ionic salts is one of the most brilliant, complex,
and contradictory figures in the history of science. This biog-
raphy by chemist Dietrich Stoltzenberg describes the life of
this extraordinary scientist in a compelling, non-judgmental
narrative that tells his story—warts and knots included. If it
is a morality tale (which it is), then the author leaves the judg-
ments to his readers.
The life of Fritz Haber is also the story of the glory of
German chemistry. In his time, German chemistry and phys-
ics dominated the world’s science, and Haber was one of its
most celebrated and honored scientists. He was born in
Breslau in 1868, son of cousins Siegfried Haber and Paula
Haber. Fritz’s mother died of complications of his birth, and
Fritz was raised by Siegfried’s second wife, with important
contributions from aunts and uncles. Fritz’s uncle Hermann,
who was active in politics and managing director of a news-
paper in Breslau, apparently provided a place for Fritz to carry
out some chemical experiments while he was a young teen-
ager. Haber credited him with convincing his father that the
study of chemistry would be acceptable. Fritz decided to study
first at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin because
of the reputations of its director, August Wilhelm von Hoff-
mann and the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. However,
both of those men were over 60 by that time—clearly too
old to be good for anything. Haber was not very satisfied
with his time in Berlin, and the famous name of Robert Bun-
sen attracted him to Heidelberg, where he spent the summer
semester of 1887. After a year of “voluntary” service in the
Field Artillery (which was required by law, so how voluntary
was that?), Haber returned to Berlin. He became a graduate
student of Carl Liebermann, with whom he studied the or-
ganic chemistry of dyes and completed his Ph.D. in 1891.
Haber’s glory years were the 17 that he spent at Karls-
ruhe, first in the institute run by Hans Bunte as a research
associate, then as the equivalent of an assistant and associate
professor, and later as professor and director of the Karlsruhe
Institute of Technology. In 1920, this included about 65 pro-
fessors, docents, unpaid assistants (hard to find these days),
and doctoral students.
During this time, Haber married the first of his two
wives, an accomplished chemist (and quite a beauty) named
Clara Immerwahr. They were married as Christians, even
though both had come from Jewish families. Haber had con-
verted a few years earlier, and he pressured his fiancé to do
so, too. It was at Karlsruhe that Haber accomplished the sci-
entific work that made him famous. The ammonia synthesis
was a triumph of imagination and technology. Previous at-
tempts to “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere had nearly all
attempted to do so by oxidizing the element (usually in a
combustion reaction of some kind). Haber was eventually
successful by going in the opposite direction—by reducing
it with hydrogen. As I have taught about this process, I have
always assumed that the specified catalyst, iron, was a com-
promise because platinum and palladium were too expensive.
As it happens, iron is far better than any other substance,
and this was discovered by Haber through painstaking trial-
and-error. A young chemical engineer named Carl Bosch was
responsible for scaling up the reaction from laboratory to in-
dustrial size, and the process is properly called the Haber–
Bosch process in recognition of his essential and significant
contribution to the challenges, not only making ammonia
from nitrogen and hydrogen, but also producing the hydrogen
gas reagent in industrial quantities.
One could argue that fixation of nitrogen from the at-
mosphere is and was the most important chemical reaction
in history, as it is essential for the practice of modern agri-
culture. Without it, it would not be possible to sustain the
present human population of the planet. The significance of
this development was recognized immediately in Germany,
and led to Haber’s appointment as Director of the newly es-
tablished Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which he began to ad-
minister in 1911.
Haber was a German patriot, who put the resources of
his Institute at the service of his country during World War I.
Synthetic ammonia became the feedstock for explosives and
ammunition when Germany’s access to nitrate mines was cut
off. It is estimated that Germany would have had to capitu-
late in 1915, had it not been for the Haber–Bosch process.
But Haber did more. He was enthusiastic about the possible
uses of gaseous compounds in warfare, first chlorine and later
mustard gases. He frequently visited the war front, and per-
sonally supervised some of the chemical deployment, includ-
ing the first such instance in Ypres, France. It was when he
returned from this battle that his wife, Clara, committed sui-
cide using Haber’s military sidearm.
The shadow of his involvement with the German mili-
tary and chemical warfare hung over Haber for the rest of
his life, and his award of the Nobel in 1920 was controver-
sial because of that. His star began to set later in his life, not
because of his enthusiasm for the military, but because of his
Jewish roots. In the 1920s, as probably the foremost Ger-
man scientist among a constellation of them, Haber was a
champion for national investment of society in science and
technology, and for the cooperation of scientific societies from
many nations. Had it not been for the rise of the Nazis, Haber
would probably have ended his life as an honored patriot,
but his Jewish heritage (which he increasingly acknowledged
after the war) was intolerable to Hitler. Haber died in exile
in France in 1934.
Hal Harris is in the Department of Chemistry and Bio-
chemistry, University of Missouri–St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
Book & Media Reviews edited by
Jeffrey Kovac
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-1600
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... Haber desenvolveu também diversos projetos bélicos enquanto chefe da Divisão de Química do Ministério da Guerra da Alemanha. 40,42 Alguns desses projetos incluíam, por exemplo, o desenvolvimento de bombas de gás cloro (Cl 2 ): Haber supervisionou pessoalmente a utilização do gás na Segunda Batalha de Ipres, resultando em quase setenta mil mortos, evento que rendeu a Haber o apelido de "pai das armas químicas". A participação de Haber na Primeira Grande Guerra foi uma grande contradição ao Prêmio Nobel recebido pelo cientista, apesar do papel fundamental que seu trabalho teve na produção de alimentos no período pós-guerra. ...
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