"Friend or Foe of Mankind?" was the title of the chapter on Fritz Haber (1868-1934) in Max Perutz's book (reference below) and these few words sum up the ambiguousness of Haber's life's work. Everything he did spanned the extremes of human achievement.

Fritz Haber was a brilliant German chemist who invented the Haber Process, which converted industrial amounts of ammonia from nitrogen in air. By doing so, cheap and abundant supplies of artificial fertilisers could be made to help boost agricultural yields. For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918. But on the other hand, his discovery was also used to create explosives. Ironically, had Haber not discovered the process, Germany would have run out of explosives and the Great War would have come to an early end. Countless lives would have been saved.

His extreme and obsessive patriotism is difficult to comprehend today. During the Great War (1914-1918) he became the father of modern chemical warfare by creating huge quantities of poison gases which were unleashed on troops fighting in the trenches. He is pictured pointing in the above right photo. His first wife, also a chemist, who was already depressed, argued against this terrible misuse of science and killed herself soon after the first gassing. He was to blame himself for his wife's suicide for the rest of his life.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (1918), Germany being the loser was forced to pay huge war reparations. The country could not afford to pay in pre-war gold marks. Many Germans suffered and some starved to death in the 1920's. So ever the patriot, Haber again tried to help his country.

He had heard that a ton of sea water contained 5/1000ths of a gram of gold or even more which meant the oceans could contain something like 8 million tons of it. So he tried to come up with a way of extracting gold from sea water. He and his 14 assistants disguised themselves as crew members of a German passenger liner bound for New York and another bound for Rio de Janeiro. Early sample tests were encouraging but not conclusive so they took about 5000 samples back to his Berlin laboratory. Alas the final result was that a ton of sea water only contained about 1/5000th of a gram. This was way too low to make it economically feasible to extract the gold. It was a crushing blow for Haber.

All the glory and the honours he earned were stripped away in 1933 by the Nazis simply because he was born a Jew. All Jewish scientists were also dismissed from their posts. When another prominient scientist, Max Planck, tried to explain to Hitler why Germany shouldn't lose their brilliant Jewish scientists, Hitler called them all Communists and worked himself up to such a frenzy that Planck had to leave the room.

Haber died a year later in exile. He did not live to see the greatest irony of all. One of his inventions, Zyklon B, was an agricultural pesticide. It contained hydrocyanic acid, a highly toxic substance. In the concentration camps of the Second World War, millions of Jews and "undesirables" were gassed to death using Zyklon B. Some of his own Jewish relations perished, perhaps gassed, in the Holocaust.

"The tragedy of war is that it uses man's best to do man's worst." Harry Emerson Fosdick, US minister and author (1878-1969)
Haber Portrait
War Photo Source

Wikipedia : Fritz Haber
Wikepedia : Gold
Wisegeek : Can gold be extracted from seawater
Nobel Prize.org
Max F Perutz (1998). I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press
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