The 1918 Nobel Prize for chemistry is probably the most important Nobel Prize ever awarded. It was given to German scientist Fritz Haber for solving one of the biggest problems humanity has ever faced.
His invention is directly responsible for the lives of 4 billion people today. But when he received his prize, many of his peers refused to attend, two other Nobel Prize winners rejected their awards in protest, and “The New York Times” wrote a scathing article about him.
He is simultaneously one of the most impactful and tragic scientists of all time. Perhaps more than any other single person, he has shaped the world we live in today.
This is How Firbz Haber Saved Billions of People & Killed Millions
With the vastly growing population and the lack of crop production which was a direct outcome of outrunning fertilizers supply. It came to be that, We stood in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. In less than 30 years’ time, people all over the world will be dying of starvation.
The only solution was through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.
Now, If you had studied high school chemistry you might be aware of Haber’s process which included combining Hydrogen atoms and Nitrogen atoms to form Ammonia.
For more than 100 years scientists were trying to create such substance but they have all failed.
So when Fritz Haber became interested in this problem in 1904, he was joining a long line of failed chemists. He was 36 years old, working as a low-level academic at the University of Karlsruhe. Driven by pride and competition with other scientists, Haber spent five years on the problem.
And there in the third week of March 1909, Haber in his laboratory with his persistence and luck finally succeded in creating the savior, ammonia(NH3).
Germany’s biggest chemical company, BASF, commercialized Haber’s process. Within four years they had opened a factory in Oppau, producing five tons of ammonia per day.
Around 50% of the Nitrogen atoms in your body came from the Haber process
People spoke of making bread from the air. With the fertilizer from this industrial process on the same plot of land, farmers were able to grow four times as much food, and as a result, the population of the Earth quadrupled.
There’s a good chance you owe your life to Haber’s invention. The Earth supports 4 billion more people today than it could without nitrogen fertilizer. In fact, around 50% of the nitrogen atoms in your body came from the Haber process. The invention made Fritz Haber a wealthy man.
But if Haber was so well regarded, why was he shunned by colleagues when he won the Nobel Prize?
Well, it all comes down to what happened in World War I. When the war broke out, Haber volunteered for military duty. Unlike pacifist Einstein who denounced the war, Haber was a patriot.
He wanted to use his expertise to help his country. Only a few months into the war, the German army was already running out of gun powder and explosives. Ammonium nitrate, besides being an excellent fertilizer, is also explosive.
Haber lobbied to convert the factories using his process to make ammonia for fertilizer to create nitrate for explosives instead. His superiors believed such a conversion to be impossible, but Haber persisted, and soon his chemical process was at the heart of the German war machine.
From bread out of the air to bombs out of the air.
But Haber thought chemistry could make an even bigger contribution to the war. He set out to make a gas that was deadly at low concentrations and heavier than air so it would sink into enemy trenches.
Projectiles carrying chemical weapons were banned, at least in theory, by the Hague Convention of 1899, but in practice after the start of the war, Germany, France, and Britain all experimented with chemical weapons.
Haber converted his wing of the institute into a chemical weapons laboratory, and after only a few months of work he zeroed in on chlorine gas. Since chlorine gas is two and a half times heavier than air, it sank into the trenches of the Allied soldiers. Any soldier that inhaled a lung full of gas suffered a terrible death.
Chlorine irritates the mucus lining of the lungs so violently that they fill with liquid.
On 22nd April, more than 5,000 Allied soldiers died this way in the first attack. Haber was promoted to the rank of captain.
His Wife Committed Sucide
On the 1st of May, the Habers hosted a dinner party, and after the party wound down, Fritz took sleeping pills and went to bed. But that night his wife Clara took his gun and went outside into the garden, and there she fired a single shot into her chest.
After Clara’s suicide, Haber spent the rest of the war running his institute. By 1917, the institute employed 1,500 people, including 150 scientists.
It was like a mini Manhattan Project, but for chemical weapons. In total, 100,000 soldiers were killed by chemical weapons in World War I. When Germany surrendered, Haber was crushed. All the money he made from his ammonia patent was lost to hyperinflation.
When the Nazis came to power all the Jewish civil servants, including scientists, were to be fired from their jobs. He was Jewish but never practiced so he was not expelled but he resigned.
The next year, in a hotel room in Basel, Switzerland, he died of heart failure.
A decade after Haber’s death, the Nazis requested chemists remove the foul-smelling component, and this form of Zyklon B, the chemical developed at Haber’s institute, was then used to perpetrate the Holocaust.
Thinking about this story, Do you paint Haber as a villain or as a hero for inventing the process used to feed half the world?