The Tragedy of Fritz Haber
Nobel Laureate Transformed World Food Production, War
Listen to Dan Charles' report: Part 1 | Part 2
July 11, 2002 --
A quick quiz: What's the most important invention of the last few
centuries? Electricity? Cars? Computers? Consider a far more obscure
innovation: the process for turning air into nitrogen fertilizer. German
chemist Fritz Haber won a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1918. Without it,
the Earth wouldn't be able to support its current population. But
the invention also has flooded the world with pollution. And as Dan Charles
reports for Morning Edition, Haber's legacy gets even murkier.
At the turn of the 20th century, scientists warned that the world's
population would soon outpace global food production. One promising solution
was to create a fertilizer containing nitrogen. Nitrogen is a prime nutrient
for plants; adding more nitrogen to fields would boost agricultural
A young, high-strung German chemist named Fritz Haber rose to the
challenge. Around 1908, he discovered a way to tap into the atmosphere's vast
reservoir of nitrogen gas and convert it into compounds plants can use.
The innovation, called the Haber-Bosch process, produces liquid ammonia, the
raw material for making nitrogen fertilizer.
Today, fertilizer factories pour out 100 millions tons of nitrogen
each year, and an estimated two billion people depend on the process to help
grow the food they eat. The problem is, much of the nitrogen ends up back in
"Nitrogen has a role in almost every environmental issue we have today," says James Galloway of the University of Virginia's
Department of Environmental Sciences.
Nitrates pollute drinking water. Some nitrogen compounds in the
atmosphere produce smog and haze. Others contribute to global warming or
destroy the ozone layer. Through farm runoff, nitrogen also makes its way
into streams and rivers, and eventually estuaries and oceans. There, it sets
off an explosive growth of algae that steals oxygen away from other
organisms, creating so-called "dead zones".
Nonetheless, Vaclav Smil, a world agriculture historian at the
University of Winnipeg and author of Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production, says Haber's work was the most momentous
technological innovation of recent centuries.
You can imagine the world without computers or electricity, but
it's very difficult to imagine people not eating every day, Smil says.
Haber earned a Nobel prize for his work with nitrogen. But it's not
his only legacy. He pioneered the use of chemical warfare in World War I.
Like Einstein, Haber was Jewish and German; unlike Einstein, he
converted to Christianity and was a German patriot. When the war turned
into a stalemate, with both sides stuck in trenches, Haber tried to break
the deadlock with chemistry. His idea: to use poison gas to destroy enemy
"Haber actually insisted on this," says biographer Margit
Szöllösi-Janze. "He said, if you want to win the war, then please, wage
chemical warfare with conviction."
On April 22, 1915, Haber was at the front lines directing the first
gas attack in military history. About 150 tons of chlorine blew across the
fields of Flanders, Belgium, spreading panic and death among the British and French soldiers opposing the German forces.
Haber returned to Berlin with his new technology apparently
vindicated. Then, a few days later, his wife Clara picked up his Army pistol
and turned it on herself. Scholars aren't sure why; no letters, if they
existed, have survived.
Clara Haber -- a talented chemist herself -- had been unhappy for
years with her life and her marriage; some friends of the Habers said later
that she also was repelled by her husband's work on poison gas. Many still
regard her death as a condemnation of Fritz Haber's life.
This is the problem with Fritz Haber, says Szöllösi-Janze: People
don't know whether to admire him, or despise him.
"On the one hand, you have the inventor of ammonia synthesis -- the
benefactor of humanity. On the other, you have the gas warrior, the terrible husband, who
drove his wife to commit suicide. We tend toward this polarization, and we
don't see as much as we should, that these two things belong together. It's the
same science and the same person, doing both."
In fact, Fritz Haber, for many, personified the parodox of science, with all its potential for good and for evil.
Some 90 years after Haber's invention, a Pew Oceans commission says nitrogen fertilizer has become the main source of pollution in the ocean. Listen to a report by NPR's Allison Aubrey.
A short Haber biography from the Nobel e-Museum.
A reprint of the July 1947 American Scientist article, The Present-Day Significance of Fritz Haber, by Morris Goran.
More about the Haber-Bosch process.
The Nitrogen Cycle
A 1997 report by the Ecological Society of America on the human alteration of the global
A World Resources Institute 1998-1999 report, Nutrient Overload: Unbalancing the Global Nitrogen Cycle.
Accounts of the April 22, 1915 chlorine gas attack.
A short history of chemical warfare in World War I.
More about WWI warfare at Trenches on the Web.