Reprinted by permission of American Scientist, magazine of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society ( Permission granted for educational use only. Scanned for use in "Plant Nutrient Managment", an undergraduate course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, by Phillip Barak (, .

Reprinted from American Scientist, July 1947, 35(3):400-403,306.

The Present-Day Significance of Fritz Haber


Roosevelt College, Chicago

It is surprising not to find Fritz Haber more popular in America, for he was the type of scientist who could be more idolized in the United States than he was in Germany. Besides possessing what might be called Yankee ingenuity, Haber had the practical insight, the grasp of theory, and the unfettered imagination sufficient to place him with the celebrated of any country during any period. His significance today lies not so much in this posthumous straddling of time and space, as it does in his prophetic vision and penetrating analyses.

Haber has rightfully been called "the greatest authority in the world on the relations between scientific research and industry."1 He first gained public recognition in this sphere when a young scientist of thirty-three. The Bunsen Society sent him, during the late spring of 1902, as an expert to observe the industrial and educational progress of the United States.

After a sixteen-week survey of the country, Haber wrote: "It is above all a question of self-estimation and enterprise. No nation has these virtues in a higher degree than the people of the United States. Its spirit of enterprise is the natural inheritance of their ancestors, who, whatever might have drawn them from their old homes, had the courage to build up new homes in a foreign country under strange and uncertain conditions. The self-estimation, however, of the individual man as well as of the nation, is perhaps the most essential trait of the American character. It manifests itself in various forms: in the early independence of youth: in the national sensitiveness which we often observe with surprise in the common people, as reflected in the daily press; in the opposition of any individual to official guardianship; in the ambition of the nation which wants to rid itself of its intellectual dependence on other countries. In my intercourse with widely-differing individuals among American chemists, nothing appeared to me so remarkable as their common tendency to prove and to have recognized the equal and independent standing of the industrial accomplishments of the United States as compared with the older successes of Europe."

In September, 1924 Haber again came to the United States, to speak at the centenary celebration of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. "Today," he said, "your nation appears to a visitor like one of the countries of an old culture."

That he knew the elements of American political culture better than do some present-day citizens is exemplified in his statement to a number of American physicians visiting Berlin, June, 1926. "You live in a land," he said, ''where personal freedom is the highest good. Your tradition honors the pioneer whose happy work changed a dangerous wilderness into an industrial state which serves its citizens . . . In our (Germany's) past times, not personal freedom but citizen organization was the highest political good. Our tradition does not honor the power to do but loyalty to duty. Our state does not serve its citizens but the citizens the state. Therefore our Republic is different than is yours."

Haber's critique of peoples and their progress did not begin and end with the democratic spirit and the pioneering tradition. When giving an analysis of why Germany almost won industrial supremacy from England during the early part of the twentieth century, he indicated that the most important factor was the indifferent attitude of the British capitalists. They were not interested in technical advance nor production. Their plants were seldom under the direct control of engineers, whereas the German industrial system had been built, supervised, and maintained by engineers and technicians anxious to have better processes, cheaper products, and efficiency in every detail. In Germany, the business-man and scientist respected each other for their specialties and profited.

Perhaps the best reason for Haber's being referred to as the greatest authority on the science-industry relationship is shown in a statement he made in 1929. He had asked a visitor whether the latter considered the research institutes of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft at Dahlem an ornament to German culture. The visitor said "Yes." Haber replied, "Excuse me, it is not quite so! Ornament, no ! Necessity, yes! We have enough solar energy in Germany to raise food enough to feed 38,000,000. From technological superiority alone can we export manufactures enough to buy the food for the other 20,000,000. From research only comes technological superiority. On brains depend 20,000,000 people. It is not an ornament-- it is a necessity."2

Haber's knowledge of the correlated place of research and industry extended through war and peace. His grasp was in both theory and practice.

Unfortunately he is remembered most often for introducing poison gas on a large scale during World War I. But in this he can no more be indicted than can Leonardo da Vinci, the atomic scientists, or the recent soldiers of the laboratory who develop synthetics and substitutes. Science has become a functional activity, being controlled by whatever forces control society.

Fritz Haber started his military career as a sergeant-major in the artillery. Within a short time, he was promoted directly to captain, a very uncommon feat in the Wehrmacht. Actually, he deserved a higher rank. He directed poison gas offense and defense activities, and later had charge of all chemical procurement and planning. Every detail of chemical defense and offense, supply and research came under his supervision. He directed work on coal production refinements, pressure syntheses of organic materials, and metal improvements. At a time when the blockade made the acquisition of raw materials difficult, when the Allies retaliated with deadlier gases to make gas defense more perplexing, when the situation demanded speed and executive talent, Haber was outstanding.

During his time, the position of scientist to the army was somewhat the same as it was in the United States during World War II. General Groves has said that 3500 young scientists and engineers served as enlisted men in his Manhattan project. Without them, the General has said, the task could not have been achieved. During Haber's time his nitrogen fixation process more than any one single factor gave the Kaiser staying power throughout 1914-18. Besides, military experts agree that the poison gas attacks almost won the war for Germany. Yet Haber was but a captain.

Fritz Haber correctly analyzed the functions of poison gas. He knew its tactical value--to lead to movement in battle and pave the way to victory for one side or the other. Until early 1915, the Powers were locked in trench warfare, and poison gas drove the armies from dugouts. Haber knew poison gas was at first a morale weapon, a device against men's minds accustomed to the usual. As a surprise weapon, it might have shattered the Allies, had the generals listened to him. The top command didn't heed him on another occasion, which they later regretted. He recommended the use of mustard gas only if Germany could win within a year; otherwise not. Within a year after the German introduction of dichlordiethylsulfide, the Allies backed by superior productive capacity and a more efficient manufacturing method, were retaliating with deadly attacks.

Fritz Haber's absorption in war work was in line with his maxim, "A scientist belongs to his country in times of war and to all mankind in times of peace." Indeed, he belonged so much to his country that Germany's defeat was a deep spiritual and physical blow for him. He never completely regained his health. One friend described him during this early postwar period as being "seventy-five percent dead."

Notwithstanding the maxim and the trauma, much of Haber's research and activity after World War I can be considered patriotic ventures. Indeed, his previous great achievement of nitrogen fixation solved a difficulty which had affected Germany more than any other country. In 1913 Germany purchased about 33 per cent of the total Chile nitrate production. The second best customer was the United States with 23 percent. With the Haber process perfected, Germany became independent of Chile's nitrate.

After the war, Haber busied himself with such tasks as rebuilding German science, and searching the seas for gold with which to pay reparations. His part in the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft, the German Science Relief Society, has been commended by all participants. His attempt to make the seven seas pay the Allies was a heroic and patriotic failure.

He was continually striving to promote Germany in the world of nations. Once he mentioned that it was too bad Germany did not possess part of the Sudan. The Germans would be able to develop the territory through their knowledge of fertilizers. For Liebig was the German chemist who founded agricultural chemistry. Haber was the German chemist who fashioned fertilizers from the air.

Haber was active in international affairs. He was a functionary in several international scientific organizations. He served as a good-will representative to Argentina, the United States, and Japan in his travels around the world. Through his efforts, German-Japan Institute, to foster trade commerce and understanding between the two countries, was established. In his message at the formal ceremonies founding it he said "We believe that in the long run every nation will best serve other nations as well as itself by learning to understand their thoughts and feelings."

Haber cited other elements he thought necessary for human progress and development. He believed science to be a particularly relevant factor. ''Natural science," he said. ''determines the measure of prosperity of man; its cultivation is the seed from which the welfare of future generations grow." In this realm consequently, he was a champion of progress.

His achievements are recorded in every division of chemistry, pure and applied. There is Haber's rule in the pyrolysis of hydrocarbons, and Haber's data supporting third law of thermodynamics. There is his study of the electrochemical reduction of nitrobenzene and his fundamental work on catalysts and high pressure syntheses.

The fixation of nitrogen by the Haber process is almost as fundamental a discovery as is the practical release of nuclear energy. The experts in the latter who proclaim the absence of secrets can find some analogy for thought in the commercial exploitation of the Haber process.

The Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik, later a key concern in the I. G. Farbenindustrie, thought the "know-how" of high pressure synthesis was too important to reveal through licensing. They meant to keep it a trade secret, and proceeded to offer nitrogen products for sale, but not the Haber patents for licensing. Other countries, knowing the basic principles of production, proceeded to develop processes of their own. Within a short time, Claude in France, Casella in Italy, and Muscle Shoals engineers in the United States could manufacture ammonia by combining nitrogen and hydrogen at high pressures and moderately high temperatures. Perhaps a moral exists in this experience for the minority of Americans who think practical nuclear energy is their own native domain.

Haber's researches have led to a vast high pressure industry, and numerous catalyst applications. Likewise his search for gold in sea water stimulated the recent extraction of bromine from the ocean. If his work seems to have a resemblance to epic projects--extracting riches from the air or from the sea--it may be due to his romantic imagination. In 1924, he casually made a statement about man's being able to live for 1000 years at some time in the near future.

If Haber had epic and, in that sense romantic accomplishments, they followed the pattern of his daily life. He was a romanticist in courtship, in conversation, and in companionship. He married a childhood sweetheart to whom he had proposed at the time he first met her. His second wife was also an intelligent woman, but much younger than himself. Friends, associates, and strangers were often amazed at his conversational ability. His speech was full of unusual comparisons and parallels, the literature language of Goethe and Schiller. Occasionally he composed his own rhyming verse throughout the course of an evening, carrying on the conversation in couplets. He was an unusual story-teller too. So different and excellent were his tales that a staid English student called them "medieval romances."

Above all, he was a realist in thought. He was tough-minded in solving problems, and wherever rigorous analysis was necessary. In all his work and in all his varied accomplishments, he applied his uncommon common sense first, and then his wide technical knowledge.

Throughout his interests, a practical viewpoint was always present. He, an engineer by training and a scientist by vocation, said early in his career: "It is not enough to seek and to know; we must also apply."

With all his wisdom, in and out of science, Haber died a broken. defeated and soul-sick man. Perhaps it is more conventional to say that he, imbued with his Germanic nature, became a tragic victim of the 1933 political upheaval. His was a heart-breaking retirement. He left his country as the foremost scientist and a foremost patriot. He left, to be sure, a land unlike the one which he had fostered and loved, but it was nonetheless his country.

This simple and powerful drama of a man who devoted his life to his nation only to resign because of a campaign against Jews, provoked more than a ripple of comment in free countries throughout the world. This heroic true story of Fritz Haber has been documented in eulogies and memorials.

Fritz Haber's experience was one of the first in the struggle between governments and a free science. It was part of the battle between governments and the laboratory, so replete with the laissez-faire and freedom tradition. Science's independent spirit, giving no allegiance to dogma, symbol, or state, needs to be refurbished and reinvigorated. Governments, which want so much to foster and exploit science, must be educated thoroughly and irrevocably in the benefits of an unfettered laboratory. Otherwise science can soon become a system of minor philosophy.


1 J. D. Bernal. "The Social Function of Science," New York: Macmillan, 1939, p. 124.

2 Alan Gregg. "The Essential Need of Fundamental Research for Social Progress," Science, 101, 258, 1945.

Reprinted by permission of American Scientist, magazine of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society ( Permission granted for educational use only. Scanned for use in "Plant Nutrient Managment", an undergraduate course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, by Phillip Barak (, .