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How an evil scientist started chemical warfare and unintentionally saved the world from hunger

Updated on August 14, 2016

Have you ever known one of those characters that are so intriguing, evil and yet fascinating. They leave you wondering whether to admire them or punch them in the face? In the case of Haber Fritz, a German chemist active during WWI, it gets even trickier. The international opinion was divided on whether to give him a noble prize or denounce him as a war criminal. They ended up doing both.

Haber Fritz was a brilliant chemist but not really a great person. His wife Clara Immerwah described him as a "my way or the highway" type of man. He was born to a Jewish family in Germany. After the onset of WWI, he was excited and started working on the ultimate chemical weapon. He was first interested in Bromine and was disappointed at the poor results. He gave up on Bromine and started working on Chlorine, which is smaller and thus much more dangerous. It turns victims’ skin yellow, green, and black, and glasses over their eyes with cataracts. It was described in horrible details by Lance Sergeant Elmer Cotton in 1915:

It produces a flooding of the lungs – it is an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are these – a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. The colour of the skin from white turns a greenish black and yellow, the colour protrudes and the eyes assume a glassy stare. It is a fiendish death to die.

Armed with such weapon, the Germans rained terror on the dazzled Frenchmen on the Second Battle of Ypres, leaving five thousand dazed and burned.

Dusk was falling when from the German trenches in front of the French line rose that strange green cloud of death. The light north-easterly breeze wafted it toward them, and in a moment death had them by the throat. One cannot blame them that they broke and fled. In the gathering dark of that awful night they fought with the terror, running blindly in the gas-cloud, and dropping with breasts heaving in agony and the slow poison of suffocation mantling their dark faces. Hundreds of them fell and died; others lay helpless, froth upon their agonized lips and their racked bodies powerfully sick, with tearing nausea at short intervals. They too would die later – a slow and lingering death of agony unspeakable. The whole air was tainted with the acrid smell of chlorine that caught at the back of men's throats and filled their mouths with its metallic taste. ~Captain Alfred Oliver Pollard, The Memoirs of a VC (1932)~

Haber didn't stop at this, he also coined a horrible biological law, Haber’s Rule, to quantify the relationship between gas concentration, exposure time, and death rate. His wife, Clara was horrified by his work on Chlorine and tried in vain to dissuade him. She ended up committing suicide during one of his short visits, he didn't even stay for the funeral arrangements.

Before his work on Chlorine, Haber had achieved notoriety by devising a way to synthesize ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, it was a chemist's dream. Nitrogen constitutes around 80% of the atmospheric air making the Haber's process cheaper, easier and more practical. Ammonia is the base of fertilizers that saved millions from Malthusian starvation during Haber's time and made feeding today's population possible. But Haber didn't really care much about fertilizers and was interested in ammonia more for its explosive properties. Still, he won the Nobel Prize of chemistry in 1918 for his discovery. A year later he was denounced as a war criminal.

Even Haber's efforts didn't help the Germans win the war. He was so humiliated by the fines that Germany had to pay that he tried to extract gold from oceans, trying to pay them himself. Needless to say, it didn't work. After a change in the regime, he was exiled by the Nazis for his Jewish roots. He died in 1934 while traveling to England for refuge. Few years later, the Nazis were gassing the Jews in Germany, including some of Haber's relatives with Zyklon B, a second generation gas based on Zyklon A. The gas that Haber himself had devised. It doesn't get more tragic than this. Haber's story is a reminder of the dangers of science unguided by ethics and values of humanity.

What do you think of Haber ?

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