Biography of Fritz Haber


Fritz Haber was German physical chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1918) for his development of a method of synthesizing ammonia. He is primarily known for his ammonia synthesis and poison gas involvement, but to focus on only these aspects of his life is an injustice to him. Haber worked on many different projects and made a variety of important chemical findings. He studied the nature of the quinone-hydroquinone redox system.

He devised a glass electrode to measure hydrogen ion concentration by means of the electric potential across a thin piece of glass. Other electrochemical subjects investigated by Haber include: studies of fuel cells, the electrolysis of crystalline salts, and the measurement of the free energy of oxidation of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon. Even his failure at obtaining gold from sea water actually paved the way for the extraction of bromine from the ocean.

Fritz Haber was born on December 9, 1868 in Breslau, Prussia, (now Wroclaw, Poland) in one of the oldest families of the town, as the son of Siegfried Haber, a prosperous chemical merchant. His mother Paula Haber died in childbirth. When Fritz was nine years old, his father married again. Fritz came to love his stepmother and as an expression of his feeling gave her white lilacs every Christmas time.

Fritz has three sisters that gave him affection, even though he always was ten years older than his eldest stepsister. When he was old enough for formal schooling, Fritz was enrolled at the Volksschule, or formal school. After three years he went to the St. Elizabeth Gymnasium for nine years. The curriculum there centered about the humanities.

The students were required to learn Latin, Greek, Literature, andPhilosophy. The little science taught was a mixture of religion, philosophy, and nature study called history. As a consequence, Fritz developed an interest in literature and philosophy that he maintained throughout his life. Gothie became his favorite poet and Kant his favorite philosopher. Men in Fritz Haber generation believe very strongly in progress and enlightenment through the acquisition of culture.

Fritz Haber – a student

Fritz enrolled in the University of Berlin when he was almost eighteen years old. The university was the home of scientists and scholars as Helmhots who was a lucid thinker about the philosophy and methodology of science as well as physicist and physiologist. From 1886 until 1891 Fritz Haber studied chemistry at the University of Heidelberg under Bunsen, at the University of Berlin under A.W. Hoffmann, and at the Technical Schoolat Charlottenberg under Liebermann.

After completing his University studies he voluntarily worked for a time in his father’s chemical business and, being interested in chemical technology, he also worked for a while under Professor Georg Lunge at the Institute of Technology at Zurich. Then he finally decided to take up a scientific career and went for one an a half years to work with Ludwig Knorr at Jena. He helped Haber to write his first paper on diacetosuccinic acid. However, orthodox methods at the University of Jena gave Haber little satisfaction.

A number of German sources credit the first synthesis of 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA, called now “Ecstasy”) to anundergraduate Fritz Haber. He reportedly synthesized this drug in 1891, four years after Edeleano’s first synthesis of amphetamine.

Haber was studying organic chemistry at the Charlottenburg Technische Hochschule in Berlin. However, the synthesis does not appear anywhere in Haber’s doctoral dissertation Ueber einige Derivate des Piperonals (Berlin G. Schade, 1891). So the case remains unproven. Even if Haber did synthesize MDMA, the young researcher never sampled his creation.

Fritz Haber converted to Christianity in 1892 at the age of 24, thereafter adopting German nationalism as his religion. Quite typically, he continued to associate with friends who were Jewish or of Jewish descent, and non-Jews often disparaged him for his Jewish origins.

Still uncertain whether to devote himself to chemistry or physics, he was offered in 1894, at the age of 25, and accepted, an assistantship at the Technische Hochschule of Karlsruhe by the Professor of Chemical Technology there, Hans Bunte. He immediately threw himself with tremendous zest into the teaching of physical chemistry (a subject in which he was essentially self-taught) and into research. Prof. Bunte was especially inlterested in combustion chemistry and Carl Engler, who was also there, introduced Haber to the study of petroleum and Haber’s subsequent work was greatly influenced by these two colleagues.

In 1896 Haber was qualified as a Privatdozent with a thesis on his experimental studies of the decomposition and combustion of hydrocarbons and in 1906, due to his intensive research in electrochemistry and thermodynamics, he was appointed Professor ofPhysical Chemistry and Electrochemistry.

In 1898 Haber published his textbook on Electrochemistry: Grundriss der technischen Elektrochemie auf theoretischer Grundlage (“The Theoretical Basis of Technical Electrochemistry”), which was based on the lectures he gave at Karlsruhe.

In the preface to his book he expressed his intention to relate chemical research to industrial processes and in the same year he reported the results of his work on electrolytic oxidation and reduction, in which he showed that definite reduction products can be produced if the potential at the cathode is kept constant. In 1898 he explained the reduction of nitrobenzene in stages at the cathode and this became the model for other similar reduction processes.

During the next ten years he performed many other electrochemical studies. Among these was his work on the electrolysis of solid salts (1904), on the establishment of the quinone-hydroquinone equilibrium at the electrode, which laid the foundations for Biilmann’s quinhydroneelectrode for determining the acidity of a liquid; but Haber invented, in collaboration with Cremer, the glass electrode for the same purposes which is now widely used.

This led Haber to make the first experimental investigations of the potential differences that occur between solid electrolytes and their aqueous solutions, which were of great interest to physiologists. During this period Haber also studied the loss of energy by steam engines, turbines and motors driven by fuels, and sought methods of limiting their loss by electrochemical means. He did not succeed in finding a solution of this problem that was commercially applicable, but he did succeed in finding a fundamental solution for the laboratory combustion of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

He then turned to the study of flames and did fundamental researches on the Bunsen flame, showing that, in the luminous inner cone of this flame, a thermodynamic water-gas equilibrium is established and that, in its outer mantle, there is combustion of water-gas. This led to a chemical method of determining flame temperatures. In 1905 he published his the most important book Thermodynamik technischer Gasreaktionen (The Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions), a pioneering work that had considerable influence on teaching and research.

In 1911, at the age of 42, he was appointed, at the recommendation of the famous Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius, to succeed Prof. Engler as Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem.

The Institute staff amounted in 1913/14 to 5 scientists, 10 assistants and 13 volunteers and students, with a personnel and operating budget of 70,000 marks excluding the salary of the Director.

A. Schlenk photograph of Fritz Haber at Dahlem

In the midst of the starting up phase of the Institute the First World War broke out. This resulted in the immediate radical change of the function of the Institute. It was placed under military control and undertook research projects important for the war effort. It thus came about that in 1914, in the course of investigations involving explosives, there was a serious explosion which claimed as its victim Otto Sackur, a very promising young physicist.

Aerial view of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes for “Chemistry” and for “Physical-Chemistry and Electrochemistry” (around 1918)

In keeping with the spirit of the time, Fritz Haber himself offered his services to the War Ministry to undertake research on the supply of raw materials, since he, unlike the military leadership, very quickly recognised the significance of this factor for the war.

For example, because Germany was essentially landlocked for the duration of the war, the supply of necessary materials was a serious problem. Haber’s institute worked on numerous wartime concerns including the problem of keeping motors running. He showed that xylene and the solvent naptha were good substitutes for toluene as an antifreeze in benzene motor fuel. Since xylene and naptha were available in Germany and toluene was not, Haber’s contributions helped to keep German machinery running and aided in sustaining their war effort for four years.

Haber also served his country in the most basic sense with his process of ammonia synthesis. Not only was ammonia used as a raw material in the production of fertilizers, it was also (and still is, for that matter) absolutely essential in the production of nitric acid. Nitric acid is a raw material for the production of chemical high explosives and other ammunition necessary for the war. Having helped to make Germany independent of Chile and other countries for necessary materials, Haber perhaps served his country in the greatest capacity. Without his process, Germany would never have had a chance to maintain the war for a long time.

In the first decade of the 20th century the rapidly increasing demand for nitrogen fertilizer greatly exceeded the supply. The largest source of the chemicals necessary for fertilizer production was found in a huge guano deposit (essentially sea bird droppings) that was 220 miles in length and five feet thick, located along the coast of Chile. The problem of utilizing atmospheric nitrogen for this purpose had become of worldwide concern.

In his book on the thermodynamics of technical gas reactions, he recorded the production of small amounts of ammonia from N2 and H2 at a temperature of 1000° C with the help of iron as a catalyst. Later he decided to attempt the synthesis of ammonia and this he accomplished after searches for suitable catalysts, by circulating nitrogen and hydrogen over the catalyst at a pressure of 150-200 atmospheres at a temperature of about 500° C.

This resulted in the establishment, with the cooperation of Bosch and Mittasch, of the “Oppau and Leuna Ammonia Works”, which enabled Germany to prolong the First World War when, in 1914, the supplies of nitrates for making explosives had failed. Modifications of this Haber process also provided ammonium sulphate for use as a fertilizer for the soil. The principle used for this process and the subsequent development of the control of catalytic reactions at high pressures and temperatures, led to the synthesis of methyl alcohol by Alwin Mittasch and to the hydrogenation of coal by the method of Bergius and the production of nitric acid.

The photo shows the laboratory apparatus designed by Fritz Haber and Robert Le Rossignol for producing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen, which was scaled up in the Haber-Bosch process. The catalytic process took place in the large cylinder on the left.

Although ammonia and its exploitation ultimately have the ability both to sustain life and destroy it, Haber did not have either reason specifically in mind when performing his research. His dedication to science and the search for solutions to a chemical problem inspired his work. He said later of his work:

“The interest of a wider circle has its source in the recognition that ammonia synthesis on a large scale represents a useful… way to satisfy an economic need. This practical usefulness was not the preconceived goal of my experiments. I was not in doubt that my laboratory work could furnish no more than a scientific statement of the foundations and a knowledge of the experimental equipment, and that much had to be added to this result in order to attain economic success on an industrial scale.”

Like Einstein, Haber was Jewish and German; unlike Einstein, he converted to Christianity and was a German patriot. Inspired by patriotism, Haber made plans for the usage of chemical weapons. With the continuance of the war the Institute developed into a central research station for the development of chemical weapons and for methods of protection against them.

Haber’s colleague and friend Richard Willst’dter of the neighbouring Institute for Chemistry developed at his request the respiratory filter for the gas mask. The Institute was extended by the addition of barrack blocks and also took over rooms in the other Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institutes at Dahlem. A large number of scientists (including Ferdinand Flury, James Franck, Herbert Freundlich, Otto Hahn, Reginald Oliver Herzog, Erich Regener and Heinrich Wieland) with a staff of more than 2000 were recruited to work on such projects.
Fritz Haber during World War I

Haber is often referred to as the father of modern chemical warfare as he organized and directed the first large scale release of chlorine gas at Ypres, France on April 22, 1915. Although figures reported vary, somewhere between 5,000 to 15,000 Allied troops were wounded or killed that day, with loses among German troops due to the gas, in the hundreds.
Fritz Haber during World War I

The photo shows a makeshift German gas laboratory near the front. The gas concentrate is stored in bottles for placement near enemy trenches. Sniper fire would then be used to break the bottle and release the gas.

German gas cylinders

5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas were released at sunrise on 22 April against French Algerian and territorial division troops following a brief preliminary bombardment by 17-inch howitzers. A veil of greenish-yellow mist could be clearly seen rolling across from the German front lines to the French positions. The effectiveness of the gas attack was so complete that it surprised the German infantry who followed up the release of the chlorine gas.

The stunned Allied troops fled in panic towards Ypres, the heavy gas settling and clogging the trenches where it gathered. Covering four miles of trench lines, the gas affected some 10,000 troops, half of whom died within ten minutes of the gas reaching the front line. Death was caused by asphyxiation. Those who lived were temporarily blinded and stumbled in confusion, coughing heavily. 2,000 of these troops were captured as prisoners of war.

Fritz Haber’s first wife Clara Immerwahr (June 21, 1870 – May 2, 1915) was also a chemist, and was as strong-willed as he was. She was the first woman to attain a Ph.D. in Chemistry (1900, University of Breslau). Clara quit her job as a chemist (reportedly she was a good one) to be a good housewife to Fritz Haber. Her maiden name Immerwahr literally translates to “always true”.

She believed that science should be used for constructive purposes, not to make weapons of mass destruction. Fritz Haber tried to keep Clara in the dark about his work on poison gas. In December 1914, however, there was an explosion in the lab, and one of the workers, a Professor Sachur, was hurt. Clara rushed to Sachur, who was an old friend that in fact she had introduced to her husband. The man died. Clara made her objections to her husband’s work plain, but Fritz continued his work on chemical weapons. Their marriage degenerated into warfare.

The startling thing about Haber’s work on chemical weapons is that he did it on his own initiative. In fact, he approached the German military at the end of 1914 to sell them on poison gas, but the military had no great respect for scientists, and poison gases seemed unsporting anyway. Haber nonetheless convinced them to watch a demonstration, conducted at a military testing ground outside Cologne. Clara was present, and her loathing of her husband’s activities increased.

After the first application of the chemical weapons, the German papers were enthusiastic over the effectiveness of poison gas, and some even claimed that gas weapons were more humane than bullets and shells. Haber was promoted to captain. He threw a dinner party to celebrate. Clara Haber was not in a congratulatory mood. They had a furious argument that evening, with Clara accusing Fritz of perverting science. He called her a traitor to Germany. Her verbal protests could not sway her husband. That night, she took his army pistol and shot herself through the heart in the garden of their house. Fritz Haber left for the Eastern Front the next day, leaving his wife’s funeral arrangements to others. Later Haber found himself another, less squeamish wife.

On October 25, 1917, Frantz Haber married second time on Charlotte Nathan. She was completely different from his first wife Clara.One year later they got a daughter Eva-Charlotte and in summer of 1920 their son Ludwig-Fritz was born.

The picture shows Fritz Haber in a millitary uniform (right) and his second wife Charlotte Haber, nee Nathan.

Haber caricature

Gas warfare, while a psychological weapon, never was a decisive factor in the war. Fritz Haber correctly analyzed the functions of poison gas. He knew its tactical value – to lead to movement in battle and pave the way to victory for one side or the other. Until early 1915, the Powers were locked in trench warfare, and poison gas drove the armies from dugouts. Haber knew poison gas was at first a morale weapon, a device against men’s minds accustomed to the usual.

As a surprise weapon, it might have shattered the Allies, had the generals listened to him. The top command didn’t heed him on another occasion, which they later regretted. He recommended the use of mustard gas only if Germany could win within a year; otherwise not. Within a year after the German introduction of dichlordiethylsulfide, the Allies backed by superior productive capacity and a more efficient manufacturing method, were retaliating with deadly attacks.

The war years were for Haber a period of intense effort motivated by his strong patriotism. He felt the outcome as a personal tragedy. At the end of the war Fritz Haber’s military activities led the Allies to label him as a “war criminal”. Tragically, he supervised the development of Zyklon B, a deadly gas that would later be used to exterminate millions of people of Jewish descent, including some of Haber’s own relatives. He was never convicted for this crime, but it made some problems for his nomination for the Nobel prize.

In 1918 Fritz Haber was nominated for a Nobel Price in chemistry for the discover of the fixation of nitrogen in the air. This brought many problems because after he was nominated for his Nobel Price in chemistry, the Nobel Committee thought about how good the explosive would do the world and hesitated in awarding him the Price. However, finally Haber received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1918 (awarded in 1919) for his work on the chemical fixation of N2, known as the Haber-Bosch process.

After the end of the war Haber was able to devote himself again to fundamental research. Attempts to use the chemical experience gained in the Institute during the development of chemical weapons for peaceful purposes in pharmacology and pest control had soon to be discontinued because of lack of finances and the rise of inflation. The economic troubles of the republic, which was having to pay out large sums of money in reparations, gave Haber, in 1920, the idea of electrochemically extracting the gold supposedly present in solution in sea water in relatively high concentration, and using it to pay off these debts.
Fritz Haber, photographed at his desk in 1919

He formed a team in the Institute which he pledged to secrecy, and developed methods to extract gold from sea water, and new techniques for its analysis. Intensive analytic investigations in the Institute on samples of sea water from various parts of the world, obtained in part by marine expeditions undertaken expressly for this purpose, showed eventually, after several years of effort, that the older and at first apparently very promising values (it was estimated that 8 thousand million tons of gold were dissolved in the sea) were too high by a factor of 1000, and extraction was not economically possible.

Fritz Haber, third from the left, on board a ship to Buenos Aires. He hoped to mine the ocean’s miniscule percentage of gold to pay Germany’s reparations imposed by the Versailles treaty that signaled the end of World War I. During journeys across the Atlantic samples of sea water were collected, which were analysed either an board in special laboratories, or at the Institute.

Greatly depressed by the failure of this project, which he attributed to his own deficiency, he devoted himself to the reorganisation of his Institute, to which he appointed sectional directors with complete freedom in their work. Among these were James Franck, Herbert Freundlich, Michael Polanyi and Rudolf Ladenburg; from the Institute came much work on colloid chemistry and atomic physics. Haber himself, at this time, made great efforts to re-establish the scientific relationships of Germany with other countries and the colloquia which he held every fortnight did much to establish the international repute of his Institute. During his last years he worked on chain reactions and on mechanisms of oxidation and on hydrogen peroxide catalysis.

Fritz Haber had frequent vacations outside of Germany. His favorite foreign resort was Pontresina, in Engadine near Lake Como, in Switzerland. During the war he had become better acquainted with Russia. In 1924, Haber and his wife enjoyed a six months’ round-the-world trip. He had many other trips with his wife or friends including a long one to Japan.

Fritz Haber (far left) and Richard Willst’tter (center) in Prague

Haber himself was at this time partly occupied with politico-scientific matters where he played a vital role in the foundation of an “Emergency Fund for German Science” (Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft), from which the German Research Foundation later developed. His main scientific activities aside from the “Gold Project” were devoted to studies of light emission in chemical reactions (chemoluminescence), the kinetics of gas reactions, the spectroscopic detection of intermediate products in chemical reactions and to photochemistry.

During the years between the two World Wars Haber produced his firedamp whistle for the protection of miners, his quartz thread manometer for low gas pressures and his observation that adsorption powers can be due to unsaturated valence forces of a solid body, on which Langmuir founded his theory of adsorption.

After the war Haber’s institute became the world’s leading centre of research in physical chemistry, with a large and distinguished international staff. All his life he had been an advocate of close relations between science and industry, and he now became active in promoting the national organization of research and in fostering friendly relations with foreign scientists. He was much attracted to Japan and in 1930 established the Japan Institute, with headquarters in Berlin and Tokyo, to promote mutual understanding and cultural interests. In Germany he enjoyed the high title of privy councillor (Geheimer Regierungsrat) and was an honorary fellow of leading chemical societies.

Berlin physicists including Einstein, Franck, Haber, Hahn, Hertz

Picture taken at the Copenhagen Polytechnic Institute: front row: Petersen Hevesy, Agnes, Fritz Haber; back row: Niels Bohr, Einar Gontelberg, Johannes N. Bronsted.

Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein

If Haber had epic and, in that sense romantic accomplishments, they followed the pattern of his daily life. He was a romanticist in courtship, in conversation, and in companionship. He married a childhood sweetheart to whom he had proposed at the time he first met her.

His second wife was also an intelligent woman, but much younger than himself. Friends, associates, and strangers were often amazed at his conversational ability. His speech was full of unusual comparisons and parallels, the literature language of Goethe and Schiller. Occasionally he composed his own rhyming verse throughout the course of an evening, carrying on the conversation in couplets. He was an unusual story-teller too. So different and excellent were his tales that a staid English student called them “medieval romances.”

Above all, he was a realist in thought. He was tough-minded in solving problems, and wherever rigorous analysis was necessary. In all his work and in all his varied accomplishments, he applied his uncommon common sense first, and then his wide technical knowledge. Throughout his interests, a practical viewpoint was always present. He, an engineer by training and a scientist by vocation, said early in his career: “It is not enough to seek and to know; we must also apply.”

60th birthday of Fritz Haber, 1928

Haber lived for science, both for its own sake and also for the influence it has in moulding human life and human culture and civilization. Versatile in his talents, he possessed an astonishing knowledge of politics, history, economics, science and industry and he might have succeeded equally well in other fields. The hesitation with which he finally decided to be a chemist has already been mentioned. He welcomed administrative responsibilities in addition to research work.

Always approachable and courteous, he was interested in every kind of problem. His ability to clarify, in a few sentences, the obscurities of a scientific discussion, was a valuable feature of the colloquia he held at his Institute and his organising talent made him a model Director of a large establishment in which he allowed complete freedom, to the workers under him, maintaining, nevertheless, a remarkable control over the activities of the Institute as a whole. A man of forceful personality, he left a lasting impression on the minds of all his associates.

The breakup of Haber’s institute began in 1933, when, with the rise of the Hitler regime and its anti-Semitic policy, this great German chemist became the “Jew Haber” (even he was converted to Christianity this didn’t help him). Nearly all his staff had to resign and Haber, rather than agree to this, himself resigned in 1933.

Haber realized that the time had come when his strong patriotism and his service to his native land could not overcome the reality of his Jewish heritage. Because of his distinguished service to his country in World War I, his life was not actually threatened, but he realized that it was time to emigrate. It is known that he would have preferred to go to Switzerland, but no invitation was offered. He was offered a position at Cambridge by Sir William Pope; thus, he left Germany for good in 1933. The Department Heads, Freundlich and Polanyi, followed suit and left Germany.

He had, however, been suffering for some time from heart disease and, fearing the English winter. After four months he left to visit the recently founded Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot, Palestine, which was later to become the Weizmann Institute, but on the way he suffered a heart attack in Basel and died there in January 1934, at the age of 65. With all his wisdom, in and out of science, Haber died a broken, defeated and soul-sick man. He requested to be buried next to his wife.

A striking feature of Haber’s life and work was his versatility. He and the institutions he directed contributed in a fundamental way to nearly all the important branches of physical chemistry. In fact, his scientific life reflected the main developments of physical chemistry over a period of 40 years. Apart from the Nobel Prize, Haber received many honours during his life.

Haber’s bust

At Max von Laue’s instigation, the Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem was renamed the Fritz Haber Institute after his death:

Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Historical Review of the Fritz-Haber-Institut


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