Never heard of Fritz Haber? Join the crowd. Few people have. But he's an important and fascinating figure who led a life filled with drama. His life is a parable of the two-sided nature of knowledge, in its capacity to create and destroy.
Haber has two - or perhaps two and a half - claims to fame.
First, he was a hero: In 1909, he invented a chemical process still used worldwide to capture nitrogen from the air so that it can be used as fertilizer, enriching the earth and nourishing farmers' fields. Without this process, called the synthesis of ammonia, the world probably could support only two thirds of its current population. An astonishing fact: Half of all the nitrogen molecules within our bodies have come from a factory using Haber's process. This invention is what earned him the Nobel prize for chemistry.
Next, he was villain, at least to non-Germans: Haber was the driving force behind Germany's use of chemical weapons in World War I, personally supervising the development and release of deadly chlorine, phosgene, and mustard. Even Haber's great nitrogen-fixing invention was first employed not to produce food but to provide explosives for war. Without Haber's invention, Germany would have been forced to capitulate within a year after the war began.
A few days after Haber directed Germany's first gas attack, his wife Clara, a talented chemist herself, took Haber's military pistol and shot herself. We cannot know why, but for many, Clara Immerwahr's death is a condemnation of Haber's life.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, however, Haber and his institute were among the first targets of Nazi attacks, for Haber was among the most prominent of Germany's Jewish scientists. Haber did the honorable thing, resigning from office in protest. He wandered across Europe in search of a new home, never finding one. In 1934, in a hotel room near the railroad station in Basel, Switzerland, he died.
A final, almost unspeakable irony of Haber's life occurred after his death. The poison gas Zyklon B, developed at Haber's instutute during the 1920s as an insecticide, was used in Nazi death camps where some of Haber's own relatives, the children of his cousins, perished.