A German Jewish Chemist,Nitrogen,the 20th Century, and Integrity

June 22nd, 2011
Jim Thomas

Few know about him or his contribution to science and technology in the 20th century. Furthermore, his breakthrough discovery of a method for the fixation of nitrogen is one of the most underappreciated in history. At the very end of a fabulous career in chemical science, one marked by productivity and destruction, accolades and condemnation, he demonstrated the cardinal virtue of integrity in its purest form.

Here are the basics.

Franz Haber was a preeminent German Chemist of Jewish descent.
In 1909 he discovered a method for the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere.
A means for capturing nitrogen from the air had bedeviled scientists for a century.
The Haber-Process, as it is known, allowed industry to produce huge quantities of nitrogen products for both agriculture and industry.
Nitrogen is the most important nutrient for food crops.
Nitrogen products are essential raw materials in the manufacture of explosives and munitions.
Across the 20th century farmers produced ever greater harvests thanks in large part to the availability of nitrogen-based plant food.
More food means more people. Two fifths of the world population would not be here, but for the Haber- Process.
Haber conceived and directed Germany’s launch of gas warfare during World War I, a feat for which he was widely condemned.
He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919.

After the war, Haber became director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. On April 7, 1933, the Nazis overlooked Haber’s Jewish descent but demanded dismissal of his staff of Jewish scientists. In a display of iron-clad integrity, he flatly refused and resigned. His letter of resignation reads in part “…in a scientific post in choosing fellow workers, I take into account only professional qualifications and the character of the applicant…” Haber went into exile and died the following year in Boset Switzerland, age 66.

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