Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was born to a traditional Jewish-German family in what is today Poland. He studied chemistry in Berlin, receiving his doctorate in 1891 and then going to apply his expertise in his father’s successful dyes and pharmaceuticals business. The two didn’t work well together, though, and Haber returned to academia. (In order to obtain a higher position at a time when Jews were barred from such posts, Haber nominally converted to Christianity.) His research in organic chemistry, electrochemistry, dye technology, gasses, and textiles brought him a great deal of recognition. In 1898 he was made an associate professor, and by 1906 a full professor at Karlsruhe University, among the most prestigious schools in Germany. It was there that Haber made his biggest breakthrough. Together with Carl Bosch, he invented a process that would quickly and cheaply produce ammonia (the key component of fertilizer) from abundant atmospheric nitrogen. Until then, ammonia had to be mined from very limited reserves. Today, over 100 million tons of ammonia is made annually using the “Haber Process”, helping to feed half of the world’s population. Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize for this work. Unfortunately, Haber also applied his know-how to less honourable endeavours. Aside from the fact that ammonia is a central ingredient of explosives, too, and the Haber Process helped to arm the German military, Haber headed the Ministry of War’s Chemistry Section during World War I, developing gasses for chemical warfare (as well as the gas masks to protect from them). To be fair, many of the world’s top chemists during this time period worked on chemical warfare to assist in their nation’s war effort. As Haber himself said, “During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country.” His wife did not agree, and committed suicide after failing to convince him to abandon his project. After the war, Haber started a company that produced pesticides. Incredibly, their most famous product was Zyklon B, later used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Haber fled Germany when the Nazis came to power. He accepted a position in what would later be the Weizmann Institute in Israel, but passed away on the journey there. Few people have at once been able to cause both so much harm and so much good. While half of the world’s food production today depends on the Haber process, so do much of its explosives, and Haber is often called “the father of chemical warfare”. Haber’s work simultaneously brought death to millions of people, and life to millions more.
Words of the Week
When God desired to create man, Truth said: “He should not be created, for he is full of lies.” Kindness said: “He should be created, for he is full of kindness.”
– Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 8:5