Fritz Haber ( 9 December 1868 – ۲۹ January 1934) was a German chemist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas. This invention is of importance for the large-scale synthesis of fertilizers and explosives. The food production for half the world’s current population depends on this method for producing nitrogen fertilizers. Haber, along with Max Born, proposed the Born–Haber cycle as a method for evaluating the lattice energy of an ionic solid.
Haber is also considered the “father of chemical warfare” for his years of pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, especially his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres.
Early life and education
Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, in Prussian Silesia (now Wrocław, in western Poland), into a well-off Jewish family. The family name Haber was a common one in the area, but Fritz Haber’s family has been traced back to a great-grandfather, Pinkus Selig Haber, a wool dealer from Kempen. An important Prussian edict of 13 March 1812 determined that Jews and their families, including Pinkus Haber, were “to be treated as local citizens and citizens of Prussia”. Under such regulations, members of the Haber family were able to establish themselves in respected positions in business, politics, and law.
Fritz Haber was the son of Siegfried and Paula Haber, first cousins who married in spite of considerable opposition from their families. Fritz’s father Siegfried was a well-known merchant in the town, who had founded his own business in dye pigments, paints and pharmaceuticals. Paula experienced a difficult pregnancy and died three weeks after Fritz’s birth, leaving Siegfried devastated and Fritz in the care of various aunts. When Fritz was about 6 years old, Siegfried remarried, to Hedwig Hamburger. Siegfried and his second wife had three daughters, Else, Helene and Frieda. Although his relationship with his father was distant and often difficult, Fritz developed close relationships with his step-mother and his half-sisters.
By the time Fritz was born, the Habers had to some extent assimilated into German society. Fritz attended primary school at the Johanneum School, a “simultaneous school” open equally to Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish students. At age 11, he went to school at the St. Elizabeth classical school, in a class evenly divided between Protestant and Jewish students. His family supported the Jewish community and continued to observe many Jewish traditions, but were not strongly associated with the synagogue. Fritz Haber identified strongly as German, less so as Jewish.
Fritz Haber successfully passed his examinations at the St. Elizabeth High School in Breslau in September 1886. Although his father wished him to apprentice in the dye company, Fritz obtained his father’s permission to study chemistry, at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin (today the Humboldt University of Berlin), with the director of the Institute for Chemistry, A. W. Hofmann. Haber was disappointed by his initial winter semester (1886–۸۷) in Berlin, and arranged to attend the University of Heidelberg for the summer semester of 1887, where he studied under Robert Bunsen. He then returned to Berlin, to the Technical College of Charlottenburg (today the Technical University of Berlin). In the summer of 1889 he left university to perform a legally required year of voluntary service in the Sixth Field Artillery Regiment Upon its completion, he returned to Charlottenburg where he became a student of Carl Liebermann. In addition to Liebermann’s lectures on organic chemistry, Haber also attended lectures by Otto Witt on the chemical technology of dyes. Liebermann assigned Haber to work on reactions with piperonal for his thesis topic, published as Über einige Derivate des piperonals (About a Few piperonal Derivatives) in 1891. Haber received his doctorate cum laude from Friedrich Wilhelm University in May 1891, after presenting his work to a board of examiners from the University of Berlin, since Charlottenburg was not yet accredited to grant doctorates
With his degree, Fritz returned to Breslau to work at his father’s chemical business. They did not get along well. Through Siegfried’s connections, Fritz was assigned a series of practical apprenticeships in different chemical companies, to gain experience. These included Grünwald and Company (a Budapest distillers), an Austrian ammonia-sodium factory, and the Feldmühle paper and cellulose works. Haber realized, based on these experiences, that he needed to learn more about technical processes, and convinced his father to let him spend a semester at Polytechnic College in Zürich (now the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), studying with Georg Lunge. In fall of 1892, Haber returned again to Breslau to work in his father’s company, but the two men continued to clash and Siegfried finally accepted that they could not work well together.
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