Fritz Haber’s Experiments in Life and Death: First, he helped feed the world. Then he developed the first chemical weapons
In April of 1915, Allied forces were battling the German Army for control of Ypres, a Flemish town in western Belgium. Months before, fighting with many young and untested soldiers, the Germans had taken heavy casualties there in a battle they called the Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres. This time, they were determined to launch their first major attack on the Western Front. With thousands of French, British, Belgian and Canadian forces dug in around the town, the Germans turned to Fritz Haber.
In 1918, Haber would be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in developing a method of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen in the air—the process that enabled the production of fertilizer in quantities that revolutionized agriculture worldwide. But in the winter of 1915, Haber’s thoughts turned to annihilating the Allies. For his efforts directing a team of scientists on the front lines in World War I, he would become known as the father of chemical warfare.
Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland), in 1868, and educated at the St. Elizabeth Classical School, where he took an early interest in chemistry. After studying at the University of Berlin, he transferred to the University of Heidelberg in 1886 and studied under the famed German chemist Robert Bunsen. Haber was ultimately appointed professor of physical chemistry and electrochemistry at the Karlshruhe Institute of Technology. When scientists warned that the world would not be able to produce enough food to feed its growing human population in the 20th century, he listened.
Scientists knew nitrogen was crucial to plant life; they also knew the earth’s supply of usable quantities was quite limited. But Haber discovered a way to convert the nitrogen gas in the earth’s atmosphere into a compound that could be used in fertilizer. According to Vaclav Smil, a global agricultural historian at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing and manufacturing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen (and later industrialized by Carl Bosch, Haber’s brother-in-law) was likely the most important technological innovation of the 20th century. It sustains the food base for the equivalent of half the world’s population today.