German physical chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1918)
for his development of a method of synthesizing ammonia. With Carl Bosch,
he invented a process for the large-scale production of ammonia for
use in nitrogen fertilizer.
Haber was the son of a prosperous chemical merchant. After the usual
classical education of the Gymnasium and student years in Berlin, Heidelberg,
and Zurich, he entered his father's business, but his impatient spirit
soon led to a break.
Deciding on an academic career, he first took up organic chemical research
at the University of Jena, but its orthodox methods gave him little
satisfaction. Chance brought him at the age of 25 to a junior post at
the Technische Hochschule of Karlsruhe, where he immediately threw himself
with tremendous zest into the teaching of physical chemistry (a subject
in which he was essentially self-taught) and into research. His intensive
early researches in electrochemistry and thermodynamics soon gained
him the position of professor of physical chemistry (1898). His reputation
was much enhanced by his timely book Grundriss der technischen Elektrochemie
auf theoretischer Grundlage (1898; "The Theoretical Basis of Technical
Electrochemistry") and especially by Thermodynamik technischer
Gasreaktionen (1905; The Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions,
1908), a pioneering work that had considerable influence on teaching
In the first decade of the 20th century the rapidly increasing demand
for nitrogen fertilizer greatly exceeded the supply, which still came
mainly from Chilean nitrate. The problem of utilizing atmospheric nitrogen
for this purpose had become of worldwide concern. (See nitrogen fixation.)
Haber developed a method for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and
hydrogen, and by 1909 he had established conditions for the large-scale
synthesis of ammonia. The process was handed over to Carl Bosch of Badische
Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik for industrial development, leading to the
Haber-Bosch process. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry
World War I.
In 1911, at the age of 42, he was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm
Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin, a new research establishment
that was to become even more famous than the school he had built up
in Karlsruhe. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he immediately
placed himself and his laboratory at the service of the government,
his first concern being to organize the supply of essential war materiel.
After the development of trench warfare he was made head of the chemical-warfare
service, and his institute became a major military establishment. He
played a leading part in the development of poison gas as a weapon.
The war years were for Haber a period of intense effort motivated by
his strong patriotism. He felt the outcome as a personal tragedy. When
Germany was required to pay enormous reparations, Haber sought to find
a way of extracting gold from seawater. Long efforts ended in 1926 with
the conclusion that the gold content of seawater was far less than had
been thought. The failure was a bitter disappointment to him, though
it had positive results of much scientific value.
After the war Haber's institute became the world's leading centre of
research in physical chemistry, with a large and distinguished international
staff. All his life he had been an advocate of close relations between
science and industry, and he now became active in promoting the national
organization of research and in fostering friendly relations with foreign
scientists. He was much attracted to Japan and in 1930 established the
Japan Institute, with headquarters in Berlin and Tokyo, to promote mutual
understanding and cultural interests. In Germany he enjoyed the high
title of privy councillor (Geheimer Regierungsrat) and was an honorary
fellow of leading chemical societies.
The breakup of Haber's institute began in 1933, when, with the rise
of the Hitler regime and its anti-Semitic policy, this great German
chemist became the "Jew Haber." He resigned in 1933 and accepted
an invitation to work at the University of Cambridge. After four months
he left to spend the winter in Italy, but on the way he suffered a heart
attack in Basel and died there in January 1934.
A striking feature of Haber's life and work was his versatility. He
and the institutions he directed contributed in a fundamental way to
nearly all the important branches of physical chemistry. In fact, his
scientific life reflected the main developments of physical chemistry
over a period of 40 years.
Morris Goran, The Story of Fritz Haber (1967), contains an exhaustive
bibliography of writings by and relating to Haber.