Clara Haber, Chemikerin

b 1870 Breslau Germany, d 1915 Berlin

portrait of Haber as a student

Clara was the first wife of one of the great chemists, Fritz Haber. He invented the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia, which in turn is the key for making nitrates for fertilizers and explosives. She herself was the first woman to receive a doctorate in chemsitry from the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) in 1900. She is said to have contributed much to his work, but hated his efforts for Germany in the First World War. Science should be used for constructive ends, not for blind patriotism.

He, though, was a converted Jew and loyal above all else to his country. He pushed the military into the use of chemical weapons. Their first major trial, of chlorine gas against French troops at Ypres on April 22, 1915, was a stunning success. Five thousand were killed and another few thousand incapacitated.

The German papers were full of praise, and Haber was promoted to captain. Finally a way had been found to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Haber threw a dinner party to celebrate. Clara and he got into a furious argument. That night she took his army pistol and killed herself in their garden with a shot to the chest.

Haber left the next day for the Eastern front, not even staying for the funeral arrangements. He continued to promote the use of poison gases, even when the true answer to the trenches turned out to be tanks. He was branded a war criminal after the Allied victory, but still won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for ammonia synthesis.

He remarried, and spent the years after war doing basic chemistry, but also searching desperately for a way to extract gold from seawater in order to pay the Weimar's Republic's debts. He rose steadily in honors, but nothing availed him when the Nazis came to power. Converting to Christianity and aiding one's country mightily in its worst struggle didn't count compared to his ancestry. He moved to a post at Cambridge, but died of a heart attack while traveling through Switzerland. He too was doomed, and by his actions as damned as Oppenheimer.

Link:

Bio of Fritz Haber
She is also a figure in Tony Harrison's British verse drama "Square Rounds"

(c) John Redford, Dec-03

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