N° 397-398 juin-juillet 2015

Remembering Fritz Haber in the year 2015

Pagination : 114-121
Rubrique : Histoire de la chimie

Haber in the laboratory in Karlsruhe (Archives of the Max Planck Society, Berlin).

German chemist Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century. He earned a PhD in organic chemistry in 1891 but then switched to other areas and carried out important research on a broad variety of chemical problems. He had exceptional scientific talent, versatility and a superb capacity to combine theoretical science with technical application. He was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his invention of the synthesis of ammonia from its elements, which saved the world from mass starvation by providing nitrogen fertilizers.

During World War I, Haber, a staunch advocate of chemical weapons, became the leader of the German chemical warfare program, for which he has been controversial to this day. As a young man he converted from Judaism to Christianity. His family life was unhappy and at times aggrieved by tragedies. Haber’s exalted existence in science and public life came to an abrupt end with the Nazis’ rise to power and he died in exile in 1934 a broken man.

2015 marks the centenary of the birth of modern chemical warfare, reminding us of its protagonist Haber. Moreover, today, with the world’s population at over 7 billion and the threat of mass hunger, we are also reminded of Haber’s key contribution to food production. It is therefore fitting in 2015 to reflect on Haber’s life and work.

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