Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The man who brought both life and death to millions

Fritz Haber was a German chemist of Jewish origin, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his development of synthesizing ammonia, an important ingredient for fertilizers and explosives. He lived next door to another man of Jewish origin; Albert Einstein.

During his time at University of Karlsruhe from 1894 to 1911, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the Haber process, which is the catalytic formation of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen under conditions of high temperature and pressure. The Haber-Bosch process was a milestone in industrial chemistry, because it divorced the production of nitrogen products, such as fertilizer, explosives and chemical feedstocks, from natural deposits, especially sodium nitrate (caliche), of which Chile was a major (and almost unique) producer. The annual world production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is currently more than 100 million tons. The food base of half of the current world population is based on the Haber-Bosch process.

Nitrogen plays an extremely important part of the lives of human beings, animal life and that of plants. Without it, our planet would be a dead planet. The processes of the nitrogen cycle transforms nitrogen from one form to another. Many of those processes are carried out by microbes, either in their effort to harvest energy or to accumulate nitrogen in a form needed for their growth. For this reason there is nitrogen in the ground but in many places around the world, there is not enough of it in the ground to grow crops. There is an abundance of nitrogen in the atmosphere but it is unusable in plants.  This is the reason why Haber’s work in the field of research in nitrogen was so important. The role of nitrogen in fertilizer cannot be overestimated.  The fertilizer went on to be used on a large scale, bringing about a huge increase in crop yields, and practically banishing the fear of famine in large parts of the world since crops that normally wouldn’t grow in nitrogen-starved soil, can now grow in soil when fertilized with ammonium nitrate.

Alas, that kind of fertilizer is also used by terrorists as a cheap explosive.  When World War I broke in 1914, Haber who was by then working for the Kaiser's research institute in Berlin was desperate to prove his patriotism. He began experimenting with chlorine gas which, he said, would shorten the war in Germany’s favour.

The first effect of inhalation of chlorine gas is a burning pain in the throat and eyes, accompanied by a sensation of suffocation. Pain, which may be severe, is felt in the chest, especially behind the sternum. Respiration becomes painful, rapid, and difficult and coughing occurs along with the irritation of the eyes which then results in profuse lachrymation. Retching is common and may be followed by vomiting, which can give some form of temporary relief. The lips and mouth are parched and the tongue is thick and dry. Severe headache rapidly follows with a feeling of considerable weakness in the legs. If the victim lies of falls down, he is likely to inhale still more chlorine gas because it is a heavy gas and therefore is most concentrated near the ground. In severe poisoning, unconsciousness follows as a result of suffocation.

The effect produced by the irritant action of the gas is a profuse exudation of a thin, light yellow, albuminous fluid by the bronchial mucous membrane, as well as a very active secretion by the lachrymal and salivary glands which are the results of protective reflexes, the object of which is to dilute the irritant poison and render it innocuous. At the same time spasm of the bronchial muscles occurs in an attempt to obstruct the passage of the gas into the alveoli. In severe cases the bronchial secretion and spasm not only fail to protect the alveoli, but obstruct the entry of air into the lungs, to such an extent that the patient becomes asphyxiated and may die before the fluid is expectorated and the spasm relaxes.

An autopsy at this stage would show a slight congestion of the larynx and intense congestion and oedema of the trachea and larger bronchi, which are filled with frothy fluid. The lungs are intensely congested and oedematous, but the violent respiration caused by the asphyxia produces small patches of over-distended lung, seen on the surface as light grey areas in the least damaged parts, into which air can still pass. The distended alveoli may rupture into the interstitial tissue, and air may spread into the mediastinum and even to the neck.  As a direct result, the victim suffocates to death.

If he lives long enough to reach medical help, he is conscious, but restless; his face is violet red, and his ears and finger nails blue; his expression strained and anxious as he gasps for breath.  He will try to get relief by sitting up with his head thrown back, or he lies in an exhausted condition, sometimes on his side with his head over the edge of the stretcher in order to help the escape of fluid from the lungs. His skin is cold and his temperature subnormal; the pulse is full and rarely over 100. Respiration is jerky, shallow and rapid, the rate being often over 40 and sometimes even 80 a minute.  All his auxiliary muscles come into play, the chest being over-distended at the height of inspiration and, as in asthma, only slightly less distended in extreme expiration. Frequent and painful coughing occurs and some frothy sputum is brought up. The lungs are less resonant than normal, but not actually dull when a stethoscope is placed on the victim’s chest. The inhalation of chlorine gas is a terrible way to die.

During the 1920s, scientists working at his institute developed the cyanide gas formulation Zyklon A, which was used as an insecticide, especially as a fumigant in grain stores. After the invention of Zyklon B, Zyklon A production was stopped. Zyklon B was used for "systematically exterminating human beings to an estimated total of six million, of whom four and a half million were exterminated by the use of Zyklon B in one camp alone, known as Auschwitz/Birkenau One of the co-inventors of Zyklon B, the chemist and businessman Bruno Tesch, was hanged by the British in 1946 for his role in the Holocaust after it was learned that he communicated with a Nazi officer about the use of Zyklon B as a means of exterminating human beings. Obviously Haber can’t be faulted for this because he died in 1934 at age 65.   

Harber married Clara Immerwahr in 1901. Clara was also a chemist and the first woman to earn a PhD at the University of Breslau. She was opposed to Haber's work in chemical warfare. On 2 May 1915, following an argument with Haber over the subject, she committed suicide in their garden by shooting herself in the heart with his service revolver, possibly in response to his having personally overseen the first successful use of chlorine at the Second Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915. That same morning, Haber left for the Eastern Front to oversee gas release against the Russians. Haber left behind his grieving 13-year-old son Hermann, who had been the one to discover his dying mother.

Haber married his second wife, Charlotte Nathan, in 1917. The couple had two children. Like Haber, both of his wives had been Jewish-born converts to Christianity.

After his death, Haber's immediate family left Germany. His second wife, Charlotte, with their children, settled in England. Haber's son, Hermann from his first marriage, emigrated to the United States during World War II. He later committed suicide in 1946 because of his shame over his father's chemical warfare work.

It is a sad commentary of our times that a respected scientist like Fritz Haber turned his expertise in chemistry to developing a weapon of mass destruction.  As I see it, there was no justification on his part to develop a deadly gas that would kill humans in the First World War.

On the other hand, I don’t have the same feeling about his neighbour, Albert Einstein even though Einstein contributed his expertise in physics towards the creation of the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan during the Second World War. It brought about quick end to the war with Japan and thusly save millions of Japanese and American lives that would have been lost if Japan had not surrendered when it did.  

It is a rather sad irony that Fritz Haber’s patriotic ambition to help Germany win the war in the First World War by creating chlorine gas to kill Germany’s enemies indirectly resulted in his wife and son later killing themselves because of their shame for what he had done. He paid dearly for creating that horrible weapon of mass destruction. I can’t help but wonder if before creating chlorine gas, he knew that he would later lose his wife and son after he created the gas, would he still have created that gas? We will never know. Unfortunately for him, he only knew of the consequences of his deed after it was too late. 

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