Haber Helped Feed Billions but Killed Millions

Nobel Prize

As many as 2 out of 5 people on earth today can thank one very bright chemist for their existence.

Fritz Haber was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918 for creating a method of extracting nitrogen from the air and synthesizing ammonia from the nitrogen. He created this method just in time as natural fertilizers were set to run out worldwide. This process was an evolutionary invention that made significant impacts on agriculture worldwide.

In the early 20th century, scientists had known that nitrogen was essential to plant life, as they knew the supply of natural usable quantities was very limited. However, the technology couldn’t sustain the famine that was happening just in Germany, never mind the rest of the world.

The Haber–Bosch method of synthesizing and manufacturing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen (years later, it was industrialized by Carl Bosch, who was Haber’s brother-in-law) was one of the most significant technological innovations in the 20th century. Today, the Haber-Bosch method withstands the food base for about half of the world’s population.

Haber’s career would flourish, and at the beginning of World War I, the German Army asked for help from Haber to replace explosives in shells with various versions of poisonous gasses.

Haber-Bosch

During the winter of 1915, Haber was successful in his efforts and from that point forward, he would become known as ‘the father of chemical warfare.’

His new chemical weapon for the Germans caused Haber’s wife to commit suicide. She was also a chemist, and many other people criticized him for his role in World War I.

Therefore, many people were shocked in disgust when in 1918, Fritz Haber was given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.

Soon after World War I, Haber was very successful in building his empire. All was going well for Haber until 1933 when the Nazis had a mighty anti-Jewish movement forcing him into retirement. Less than a year later, he passed away a very disturbed and broken man.

Haber would never live to see World War II and the introduction of Zyklon B, the poisonous gas invented in a lab in the 1920s that would kill millions, including several Haber’s family members throughout many of the Nazi concentration camps.

Haber may be the only person ever to at the same time receive a Nobel prize and be tried for war crimes against humanity.

Fritz Haber

Sources:

https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/fritz-haber

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fritz-habers-experiments-in-life-and-death-114161301/

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1918/haber/biographical/

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fritz-Haber

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