Fritz Haber was a Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, inventing the Haber-Bosch process to assist in large-scale synthesis of fertilizers and explosives. Unfortunately, he also pioneered work and development in weaponized chlorine and poison gas, which was eventually used in the gas chambers in World War II.
His work earned him the title “Father of Chemical Warfare” and also led to his wife and son to commit suicide.
After a complicated pregnancy, his mother died shortly after giving birth to him. His father later remarried and had several children, with whom he grew closely fond of. Despite being born into a Jewish family, Fritz identified more with German society than his Jewish roots.
In 1901, Fritz married Clara Immerwahr, the first woman to earn a PhD in Chemistry. It’s no surprise that they were pioneers of the field. But they didn’t agree on what they should be working on; Clara was a pacifist and greatly opposed Fritz’s research in chemical warfare. Fifteen-years later, Clara committed suicide – some believe this was in direct response to Fritz’s involvement in the first trial of chlorine gas at the Second Battle of Ypres.
Germans carried nearly 6,000 gas cylinders, weighing each nearly 100 pounds, and opened them by hand to release the gas. Wind carried the gas to the enemy lines, killing thousands within minutes. Heavier than air, the chlorine gas forced troops out of trenches and into enemy fire.
The French troops were completely caught off-guard. It was the first-ever attack with poisonous gas. Hossack describes the scene:
Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it? Officers, and Staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road. two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster. One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, “What’s the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?” says he. The Zouave was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer’s feet. [wikipedia.org]
Haber had two sons, Hermann and Ludwig. Hermann had survived in France until an invasion by Germany forced him and his daughters to flee to the United States. Hermann later committed suicide in 1946, around the same time that his daughter had also committed suicide. Ludwig subsequently became a historian of chemical warfare, publishing a book in the 1980’s called The Poisonous Cloud.
Many of Fritz’s extended family died in Nazi concentration camps – most likely with the same chemical poison that Haber had developed.