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Fritz Haber

Nobel Prize winner

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, Germany (now part of Poland), on December 9, 1868, the son of a merchant. He received his basic education at the St. Elizabeth classical school at Breslau, where he did many chemical experiments, after which he studied under August Wilhelm von Hoffmann at the University of Berlin, Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen at the University of Heidelberg, and Karl Liebermann at the Charlottenburg Technical School; he received his doctorate from the latter in 1891.

After completing his degree, Haber worked in his father's chemical business before becoming an assistant to Professor Georg Lunge at the Zurich Institute of Technology and then spending a year-and-a-half working with Ludwig Knorr at Jena on a paper on diacetosuccinic ester. In 1894 he accepted an assistantship at the Fridericiana Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, under Hans Bunte, Professor of Chemical Technology. It was there that Haber became introduced to inorganic chemistry, and his 1896 thesis on the decomposition and combustion of hydrocarbons earned him a position as a lecturer. In 1898 he published a textbook on electrochemistry. In the preface he expressed his intention to relate chemical research to industrial processes, and he spent the rest of his career doing exactly that.

In 1905, Haber reached an objective long sought by chemists -- that of fixing nitrogen from air. Using high pressure and a catalyst, he directly reacted nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas to create ammonia. The nitric acid produced from the ammonia could then used to manufacture agricultural fertilizers and explosives. Haber's process was improved by Carl Bosch, and the "Haber-Bosch Process" is still used to manufacture ammonia today. Haber was rewarded for this work with the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

In 1906, Haber became a Professor of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry at Karlsruhe, and he remained in that position until 1911, when he was appointed Director of the Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft in Berlin. When the First World War broke out, he was appointed a consultant to the German War Office. His principal research for the War Office involved poison gas, and on April 22, 1915 he personally oversaw the very first release of chlorine gas, over a battlefield in France; over 10,000 Allied troops were killed. Haber’s work greatly distressed his wife, fellow chemist Clara Immerwahr, and she shot herself in the heart three weeks after his "demonstration."

After the war, Haber helped to create the German Relief Organisation and served on the League of Nations Committee on Chemical Warfare. From 1920 until 1926, he experimented on the recovery of gold from sea water, his idea being to enable Germany to meet her war reparations. Greatly depressed by the failure of this project, which he attributed to his own deficiency, he devoted himself to the reorganization of his Institute, to which he appointed sectional directors with complete freedom in their work.

Although he was Jewish, Haber's work kept him from direct persecution by the Nazis. In 1933, however, the Nazi race laws compelled nearly all his staff to resign and Haber, rather than agree to this, himself resigned. He was then invited by Sir William Pope to go to Cambridge, England, and there he remained for a while. He had, however, been suffering for some time from heart disease and soon decided to move to a more favorable climate in Switzerland. He died in Basel, Switzerland, on January 29, 1934.


Chemical Heritage Foundation
Encyclopędia Britannica
Nobel Prize
Science Heroes

See Also

Nobel Prize for Chemistry
First World War

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The Robinson Library >> Chemistry >> Biography

This page was last updated on 12/09/2018.