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Fritz Haber, the Man who Killed Millions and Saved Billions

Written by Ardil Ulucay

Chapter I, His Early Life

Fritz Haber is a name less widely recognized and known than some of his counterparts such as Louis Pasteur, Tesla, or Marie Curie. Yet, his impact on the world was profound. He was probably the reason that many of us today are even alive. This controversial figure was born to a German-Jewish family on December 9, 1868, in what was then Breslau, Silesia, Prussia (It is now Wroclaw and is located in the borders of Poland) Haber received most of his early education in a Gymnasium (It is a type of school that mainly teaches science-related topics). He was most likely influenced and inspired by his father who was an importer of natural dyes and pigments. He started studying chemistry at the University of Berlin in 1886 but transferred to Heidelberg just after one semester. One year into university he had to interrupt his education for a year of mandatory military service.

Later, he attended Charlottenburg Technische Hochschule in Berlin, he collaborated with Karl Liebermann on studying the organic compound piperonal. Since Charlottenburg didn't offer doctoral degrees, he obtained his doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1891 for his research with Liebermann. Following graduation, he experienced three years of instability, marked by sporadic industrial jobs (including working for his father) and brief periods of postdoctoral research at Technische Hochschule in Zürich and the University of Jena [1].

Chapter II, the Man who Saved Billions

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world faced a pressing challenge: how to sustainably increase food production to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population. Nitrogen, an essential element for plant growth and protein synthesis, was abundant in the atmosphere but largely inaccessible in a form usable by plants. Many people would set sail on the ocean to find islands close to shore that were mostly used by various bird species to mate. On these islands were large quantities of Guano (Bird feces), even mountains of it. Guano would consist of roughly 20% Nitrogen so it was a profitable business to collect and sell bird guano to farmers. But as one could imagine such a high demand for guano caused it to eventually start running out and Peru stopped further exports of guano to save it for themselves. I

         More than 78% of air is nitrogen, it is not a rare resource but it is in a form that is hard to separate. It is one of the strongest, two nitrogen atoms are triple-bonded together. The method we use to measure the strength of a chemical bond is to determine the energy it would require to break these said bonds. If we were to scale this and compare it to other elements that are common in air. It would take 2.5 eV (Electron Volts) to break apart two chlorine atoms, it would take 3.8 eV to break away two carbons and break apart two oxygen atoms it would take 5.2 eV but it would take 9.8 eV to break apart two nitrogen atoms. This is a massive amount of energy [3, 7].

Haber became interested in this problem when he was working as an academic at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. His idea was to combine hydrogen and nitrogen not only at really high pressures but also at a high temperature and combine these with a catalyst  A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction or lowers the temperature or pressure needed to start one, without itself being consumed during the reaction) Haber was able to get his hands on a rare element called osmium as well as he worked in a company that experimented with these substances. This would be perfect as a catalyst [1, 6].

He worked five years on this project and eventually, he placed a small amount of osmium into a pressure chamber and then he heated nitrogen and hydrogen together using the said osmium as a catalyst. Under these extreme conditions nitrogen and hydrogen reacted with one another and after cooling it a few drops of ammonia, about a milliliter dripped into a beaker. He was finally able to do it. After this, a flabbergasted Haber ran around the institute screaming, bursting into random laboratories, and yelling “Come on down! There is ammonia!” Today this process is called the Haber-Bosch process. This was later industrialized by Haber’s brother-in-law Carl Bosch who was also a fellow chemist that worked in Germany’s biggest chemical company BASF Aktiengesellschaft. After it became common use people started talking about making bread out of air, farmers were able to grow more than four times as much food on the same plot of land [1, 2, 6].

Chapter III, the Man who Killed Millions

After his discoveries, Hauber became a very wealthy man. He was widely popular and got a promotion becoming the Founding Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin. He became friends with some of the most bright minds of their time including Einstein who he became really good friends with. Einstein even stayed the night in the Haber household after he separated from his first wife in 1914 [1].

Though after all of these, we are still yet to talk about why Haber is known as the man who killed millions but saved billions. When the Great War started in 1914, as a devoted German patriot in contrast to his good friend Einstein who was a widely known pacifist and humanist he wholeheartedly devoted his wing of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute to inventing and supporting the Imperial German Army’s need for synthetic and chemical materials [1, 3, 4].

Using the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald’s process for the oxidation of ammonia to ammonium nitrate (Nitric acid) he began developing certain high-powered explosives that were used in artillery shells and different varieties of bombs [1].

A year into the war in 1915, Haber became a consultant to the German War Office where he first started experimenting with chlorine gasses for potential use on the battlefield. Although the uses of such gasses were forbidden by the Hague Convention, the Entente and the Central powers experimented and used these weapons of unimaginable suffering. However, Hauber found it difficult to find any field commanders who would agree to even test these in the field. One general even said that it was “unchivalrous” to use poison gas on the battlefield. According to some accounts, Haber claimed, “If you want to win the war, then please, wage chemical warfare with conviction.” [1, 3, 4]

After a while though, the military started requesting tear gas and other irritants to use in the field. Seeing this, Haber proposed to use the chlorine gas as a chemical weapon. This suggestion was put to action in the Battle of Ypres, France in April 1915. It had a devastating effect on the battlefield, more than 6000 people would lay dead in the muddy trenches after the first wave of gas

Chlorine gas was 2.5 times heavier than air, it would creep towards the enemy trenches and then it would sink into the trenches. The chlorine gas first causes a reflex that forces one to hold their breath. And then when the person would ultimately gasp for air. The chlorine reacts with the water in the cells of your throat, mouth, and lungs to create Hydrochloric acid (HCL) and Hypochlorous acid (HCLO). These acids scour the lining of the lungs and together with the water fill the lungs and effectively drown the victim on land. 100.000 people would die in the war due to the effects of the gas alone. Yet it couldn’t break the stalemate like Haber said [1, 3].

Among all of this, Haber would have to face a personal tragedy. After a dinner party, Haber would take some sleeping pills and get into bed. While he was sound asleep, his wife, Clara would grab his husband’s pistol and go outside. She does the unthinkable and commits suicide by firing a single shot into her chest. Sadly their 12-year-old boy would witness this.

Ultimately, Germany loses the war. Ironically in part due to a lack of fertilizers in the homefront and food as the military confiscated most of the ammonia fertilizer to create gasses and explosives. Fritz Haber’s work would also lead to the development of a deadly pesticide known as Zyklon B. This gas would tragically be used by the Nazis during the holocaust and serve as the primary gas used in the infamous gas chambers [3, 5].

Chapter IV, The Post-War Period

Haber faced accusations of being a war criminal after the war, but he argued that if he was a criminal, then so were those who made the bombs and bullets he also mentioned that almost all of the major powers in the war had used chemical gasses during the war as well. One year after the war in 1919 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This polarized the science community as some imminent peers and past winners refused to show up, and some past winners even unannounced their victories and prizes in protest [1, 3].

He also experimented with recovering gold from the sea to pay for the crippling war debts of Germany. He also started having economic problems as the factory Carl Bosch opened exploded after multiple complications (As we previously mentioned ammonium nitrate is highly explosive) and he lost most of his money during the times of hyperinflation. He also carried on with his research on gas warfare in Spain and the Soviet Union, pretending to dismantle gas weapons. He kept newspaper clippings of his first attack in Ypres framed in his study [3].

In the past and even now, many are unsure how to judge Haber’s legacy. On one side, his ammonia formula saved millions from starvation in his time and continues to feed billions today. More than half of the world's population is alive thanks to the boom in agriculture that occurred after Haber's invention. This elevates him to the ranks of scientific geniuses like Tesla, Curie, and his friend, Einstein. On the flip side, he created some of the most dreadful weapons ever conceived and used them on fellow humans with pride. In 1919, he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but due to public outcry, he couldn't accept the medal at a ceremony. He had to wait six months and wasn't accepted by the Swedish King. he partly redeemed himself by defying Hitler and the Nazis (whom he called 'scum') when they demanded he fire all his Jewish scientists. Despite being of Jewish descent, Haber was still seen as a war hero in Germany at the time – unlike pacifist Einstein – and his resignation deeply embarrassed Hitler. Despite his defiance against Hitler, the stigma of gas warfare followed him when he tried to find work abroad. He eventually secured an unpaid position at Cambridge in the UK, where he was still widely disliked. He passed away in 1934 in Switzerland while he was trying to move to Palestine. His final wish was to be buried next to his wife, Clara.

It is sometimes scary how much one person can affect the course of history. And yet still be unknown by many.


  1. Fritz Haber. (1998, July 20). Encyclopedia Britannica.

  2. Fritz Haber: December 9, 1868-January 29, 1934. (n.d.). PubMed

  3. (2024, March 29). Behavior Change Cornwall.

  4. The llittle-knownscientist who saved billions but killed millions. (n.d.). UNILAD.

  5. Fritz Haber: Jewish chemist whose work led to Zyklon B. (2011, April 8). BBC News.

  6. Fritz Haber. (n.d.). Google Books.,+D.+(2004).+Fritz+Haber:+Chemist,+Nobel+Laureate,+German,+Jew.+Chemical+Heritage+Foundation.&ots=mbu15Tlmqv&sig=qNqpKaoRSMA0_pRcXUTtstXOl6Y&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Stoltzenberg%2C%20D.%20(2004).%20Fritz%20Haber%3A%20Chemist%2C%20Nobel%20Laureate%2C%20German%2C%20Jew.%20Chemical%20Heritage%20Foundation.&f=false


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