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Happy Saturday, everybody. We have an episode coming up on the show that references back to chemical warfare in World War One. So we thought we would share our previous episode on Fritz Haber, who was the mastermind of Germany's chemical weapons program. That was from previous hosts of the show, Sarah and Delina. And just as a note, in addition to the discussions of chemical weapons and their effects, this episode also includes some discussion of the suicides of people connected to Hober, including his wife, Clara, who took her own life in 1915.
This episode originally came out on December 12, 2011.
Welcome to stuff you missed in History Class, A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast, I'm Sarah Daoudi, and I'm Delana Chakraborty and Delina, I'm sure you've noticed, but we talk a lot about these father of subjects, though, like Alan Turing, the father of computer science, I think also the father of artificial intelligence recently, Alphonse Bertillon, who is the father of the mugshot. That's a pretty good one. And then Harvey Wiley, too.
Yes. The Pure Food Father. Yeah, exactly. So today's subject, German chemist Fritz Hober might have one of the more dubious father of titles. He's commonly considered the father of chemical warfare for his work during World War One. That sounds pretty bad already, but it's worth getting it out there right now that that's not a passively earned title either. He's not a scientist who made a discovery and then watched as it was applied by other workers, other scientists to something horrible.
He actively promoted the development and use of gas in warfare, even witnessing its deployment from the front. But Harbours chemical work also led to the development of synthetic fertilizers, another fraught subject due to environmental concerns, of course, but undoubtably significant to the BBC, estimates that two out of five people would not be alive today if global crop yields hadn't shot through the roof in the 20th century, allowing way more food to be grown for population now rounding seven billion.
So, I mean, that's an amazing statistic to me. It really stops and makes you stop and think it does.
It makes you wonder if you might be two out of five there. But we have two sides of a story set up already. So there's Fritz Hober, the brilliant chemist creating instruments of war, and Fritz Haber, the brilliant chemist saving millions of people from famine. We can also add to the mix a tragic family life, a complicated existence as a patriotic German Jew and a Nobel Prize, which this have been popping up a lot in podcast. They listen to you.
But we're going to start in Breslov Prussia, which is now part of Poland, where Fritz Haber was born December 29th, 1868, and his father worked in the pigment and die industry, importing pigments and dyes. And his mother died within a month of giving birth to him, which was a fact that might have caused a little bit of family tension between the father and the son and how his father's business, being chemically based, may have actually helped stoke an interest in chemistry for him, because by the time he enrolled at the University of Berlin in 1886, it was to study science.
And he continued his schooling at Heidelberg, where he studied with Robert William Bunson, a very famous name, unconverted Bunsen burners, and the Charlottenburg technician Hok Sulla in Berlin, taking a year off for military service after a stint working for his father and dabbling in industry, Hobby turned to scientific research in Zurich and at the University of Vienna. His first academic job came in 1894 with the Department of Chemical and Fuel Technology in Karlsruhe, where he switched his focus from organic chemistry to physical chemistry.
By 1897, he branched out into electrochemistry and by 1984 he was studying thermodynamics.
Yeah, and it's during this phase that he began his life changing work. Back in 1898, the British chemist William Crookes had issued this very dire pronouncement. And of course, pronouncements like this had been issued throughout history. But this is the one we're focusing on. He predicted that during the upcoming century, the world's food supply would no longer be able to support its booming population. Population would outstrip how much food we could grow. So the question was, how could we boost crop yields so we wouldn't have all these people starving?
Well, nitrogen fertilizer certainly helps make more productive crops. And just a very quick, very brief science lesson here. Nitrogen is, of course, all around us. It's the largest component of the air we breathe, but it's obviously of no use to plants unless it's fixed in something water soluble, like ammonia or nitrates, for instance. So I thought of the three sisters method that Native Americans use. That was my first sort of bell that rang for nitrogen fixing.
Interesting. Yeah, you might remember it, too. It's just this simple natural version of fixing nitrogen where the bean plants, I think, would fix it in the soil for the maize and the squash plants. But we're talking a much larger scale production by this point than that. And by the turn of the century, the largest natural sodium nitrate source for commercial farming was guano, which is bird or bat poop. And that's still sometimes used as fertilizer.
But in the least practical scenario imaginable, the best source for guano worldwide at the time was this 220 mile, five foot thick deposit of bird droppings. In Chile, it's pretty gross. It's a little growth and just like I said, really not practical at all.
I mean, you imagine being in Germany and you're having to import this guano from across the world. It seems like there'd be a better solution.
OK, so that's why Hober starts working on this problem. He starts tinkering and truly tinkering. There's no stroke of luck here, sudden discovery. And by 1968, he figured out the right conditions to make ammonia out of air. Specifically, he used an iron catalyst to force hydrogen and nitrogen to combine into ammonia under very high temperatures and a very high pressure. His lab techniques were then refined and adapted for industrial purposes by another German chemist, Karl Bosch, and the resulting process, appropriately named the Harbor Bosch process, made large scale production of ammonia feasible and economical enough to make huge batches of commercial fertilizer.
The first ammonia plant was built in 1911 and more quickly followed that.
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Make it up as we go only on the podcast network in association with audio of media created by Scarlett Burke and Jared Goosestep. But there is, of course, a flipside to all of this, there's another big draw to beefing up Germany's ammonia producing facilities. Ammonia oxidise under the Oswald process becomes nitric acid, which is a key component in munitions and other explosives manufacturing. So after transferring to lead the newly established Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1911, Hober supervised the establishment's dedication to the war effort.
And he was a really enthusiastic German patriot. And his institute made a lot of important contributions to the war effort, not just in weaponry, but in supplies and developments to keep machinery running, things like antifreeze, replacement stuff on that level, something pretty crucial, nevertheless, to blockaded Germany, you know, keeping their supply lines running. But Hober is not best remembered for antifreeze replacement contributions.
Of course, he's best remembered for his work in gas warfare. He thoroughly believed in gas as a humane weapon. I know that's really hard to comprehend because gas seems like one of the most terrible weapons there is. But he saw it as a way to end the war quickly and to end this war that was going to drag on in the trenches and all of that, but end it quickly and decisively in favour of Germany with fewer German deaths and less debt.
And he was OK with this, even though gas warfare was in violation of international treaties, although we should point out now that at the point he started working on it, other countries were OK with tear gas at least, and that was what Germany was originally developing. But harbors first experiments were with chlorine gas.
Instead, according to a Smithsonian article on major wartime inventions, chlorine gas had two big things going for it. It remains gaseous, even when temperatures drop below zero degrees Fahrenheit and it's heavier than air. So it settles into trenches, forcing troops out and into enemy fire. It's also just really terrible. It can react with water to produce acid burn in the eyes and causing the lungs to fill up with fluid. At its worst, you literally drown in air.
It's pretty terrible. So the Germans first deployed it under hovers direct supervision at the Second Battle of APRE, April 22nd, 1915, under the codename Disinfection. And I saw all sorts of reports for the number of people affected totaling the allies, Germans and civilians too, because you can't really exactly control where gas go. So numbers vary, numbers vary a lot. But British records showed 350 killed and 7000 casualties. And that, of course, means men who were out of commission due to the severity of their injuries.
You know, they were blinded or had terrible respiratory effects from it and were sometimes out of commission for the rest of the war.
And the attack was a success for the Germans, though so much so that they were completely unprepared to follow up with reinforcements. It was also a success for Hober and a validation of his work. After Apre Harbour was promoted to captain in the Army, which was the highest position that he obtained the night of his celebratory party.
Though his wife, Klara Emrah, committed suicide with his service weapon, the reasons behind her death are really unknown.
She was a fellow chemist, the first German woman to get a doctorate in chemistry, actually from a German university. But the hoped for scientific partnership of her marriage, you know, maybe she was hoping for something like the Curie's. It proved to be a disappointment to her. There really weren't many professional opportunities for married women scientists with children at the time, but many see her suicide, especially considering the timing as more than the depression of a frustrated chemist, but rather a protest against her husband's involvement in gas warfare.
I read an article in the Jewish Women's Encyclopedia that stated that Clara had urged her husband repeatedly to stop work on gas warfare. She was just sort of horrified by it and thought that his work was a, quote, perversion of the ideals of science. And he had reacted to it. They had a tense marriage anyway, but he had reacted to it by publicly accusing her of treason to the fatherland for her statements or treasonous statements.
So, yeah, consequently, a lot of people do see her suicide as a as a protest, as a statement against what he was doing. But however, his reaction to her death certainly didn't improve the situation. The day after her death, he returned to the front, left their son to deal with the aftermath of the family drama.
And he did write to a friend, though, sort of suggesting that this was maybe more serious than it appears in a lot of his biographies. He wrote, I hear in my heart the words that the poor woman once. I see her head emerging from between orders and telegrams, and I suffer. Wow. So, yes, this is our if we haven't already painted a scary enough picture or sad enough picture, this certainly puts it there.
By 1916, Hober was in charge of Germany's chemical warfare service, where he continued his work in gas research and development.
Chlorine was countered with effective masks pretty quickly and was supplanted by phosgene, which was responsible for most of the gas deaths and mustard gas, which could burn the skin and cause these horrible blisters in addition to suffocation.
That's probably the gas that you think of the most when you're thinking of gas warfare in World War One, right?
Mustard gas was particularly awful because it had practically no smell, no color, and wouldn't always cause immediate damage. Troops really needed unwieldy full body coverage to stay safe from it, or gas proof shelters that they could retreat to. And gas was eventually used on all sides, creating an arms race of sorts between each country's chemists, each trying to create more effective gases and masks.
So that's why World War One is sometimes called the chemists war, which I hadn't ever heard that term before, I mean, researching this podcast. But it really it does make sense. But despite gas being responsible for only one point three million of the twenty nine point five million World War One death, it was a really potent psychological weapon. I thought of the poem Bill Decorum EST, which is an old probably like ninth grade English class staple, where you if you haven't read it, you could find it online easily.
But it's a good it's a good way to get into the I don't know, to better understand it as a psychological weapon and see what somebody's dying of gas would really do to a soldier.
Besides just getting into people's heads, the gas, it required a lot of logistical adaptations as well. It required medical tests to be set up near the front where soldiers could quickly hose off and get their nose, eyes and mouth sprayed with baking soda. According to a military history article by Clyde Ward, ropes would connect these field tents to ambulances so soldiers blinded by gas could follow along one of the most famous paintings from the war. John Singer Sargents Ghast depicts blinded men walking in a column.
It also required gas officers who would remove their masks and attempt to I.D. the gas in question with quick sniffs with mustard, for instance, the trained men were supposed to be able to detect a faint smell of garlic and would order a chlorinated lime to mitigate the gases effects.
That sounds like one of the worst jobs in the war, probably. But moving on to Hober again, while his innovations could prolong the war for Germany, they obviously couldn't win it. And after Germany's defeat, Hober was really on the verge of nervous collapse. He felt partly responsible for the country's failure. And there was also the very real possibility since he was on the losing side, that he'd be accused of war crimes. Instead, though, things really looked up for him.
He remarried and he won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was awarded in 1919 for his work on the Hober Bosz process. And of course, considering his recent wartime history at this point, that award was a pretty controversial choice. I mean, he wasn't getting congratulated by the international scientific community will just put it that way, especially since he remained a fiercely patriotic German. He went right back to work for the fatherland. In this effort to help his country repay hefty wartime reparations, he began to conceive of this plan to extract gold from international seawaters operating under the incorrect assumption.
Unfortunately for him, that there were up to 60 milligrams of gold per metric ton in seawater. Once it was revealed that there was nowhere near that much gold in seawater, the plan was scrapped, another sort of depressing side to his life. He was very upset at the the downfall of that plan.
He also became something of a pop scientist, though, writing articles, giving lectures and continuing his tinkering and and leading tremendous output from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.
But by the early thirties, Germany was no longer a place for a Jewish man, even one who had converted to Lutheranism decades earlier and served his country during the first war. The story usually has Hober leaving the country after Hitler ordered all Jews out of government positions while his own job was safe due to a status. Hober supposed to have resigned over the firing of his Jewish staff, according to his daughter Ava, though he simply reported for work one day at the institute and was barred by the porter who told him the Jew Hober is not allowed in here.
Either way, though he did leave Germany and took up an invitation to go to Cambridge and work in exile and wrote to a friend once he was there, quote, I was German to an extent that I feel fully only now and I am filled with incredible disgust. I mean, I would assume of being abandoned by his country, but he only ended up staying in England for a few months before moving on to Switzerland and dying there of a heart attack in 1934 at the age of 65.
While he was in Switzerland, he had been en route to meet with Hyam Weitzman, who was the future first president of Israel, and he was planning to meet with him about a new position at an institute. So he was actively looking to continue his work when when he passed away.
The legacy of Hopper's work took an even darker turn during the Second World War, while Hitler's own experience with gas left him with a sometimes hoarse voice and revulsion to its combat use, he found it an effective means of mass civilian killings. In the 1920s, Hober had helped to develop pesticide gases at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. In that research ultimately developed into Zyklon B, the gas that was used during the Holocaust at Nazi extermination camps. Some of harbour's own relatives died in those camps.
I mean, I think that's the saddest twist to the story. And I guess he wasn't alive to see it. But it it certainly I don't know, it affected me more than some of the other sad facts in his life. But just to pile it on, his son by his first marriage committed suicide in the 1940s. And then his other son, his son from his second marriage, went on to become a historian of gas warfare. He wrote a book called The Poisonous Cloud.
And it's one of the best known books, I think, on gas warfare. During World War One, after his death, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was eventually renamed the Fritze Hober Institute and harbors prize winning collaborator Bosch also saw mixed fortunes leading up to the second war. He had become president of a German chemical manufacturing company and had won the 1931 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his half of the harbour process.
But he also saw one of his plants blow up, killing hundreds and said of the approaching war, quote, My entire life's work will be destroyed and I cannot survive that.
So with it's really gotten to me, it's a really depressing episode.
But how how are we going to attempt to reconcile the two sides of Fritz Hober? I mean, I think it's the question that anybody who looks at his life tries to answer. He's a Nobel Prize winner. He's responsible for some some pretty impressive discoveries, but also for some really disturbing stuff.
His Nobel biography described him like this Hobert live for science, both for its own sake and also for the influence it has in molding human life and human culture and civilization. And that's, of course, referring to his work, developing fertilizers. But I think it also speaks pretty poignantly to his work in weaponry and gas. And I know during the bloodwork interview, we had talked a little bit about ambiguity in science. You know, you don't really know exactly how it's going to play out and how some of those experiments with animals are really disturbing to us now.
And I think that Hober in that quote in particular, kind of sum up that idea of the ambiguity of science when doing research that led to the harbour bosz process.
Hober didn't have a purpose in mind, just a goal for hydrogen and nitrogen to combine in a chemical reaction. So I mean, I guess that's something to think about. And it is I the results, the scientists doing the work. And I mean, what is the scientist responsibility to think about what could happen with that work eventually? But Bosch did wonder a lot about the consequences of the work he had done with Hober. He wrote, quote, I have often asked myself whether it would have been better if we had not succeeded.
But these questions are useless. Progress in science and technology cannot be stopped.
And just to throw one final quote in the mix here, I think that it's really interesting to compare that quote that Bosch left later in life with one that Hober wrote as a young man before seeing the benefits and the terror caused by his discoveries.
He wrote, We only want one limit the limit of our own ability. So, yeah, I think on that a little bit guy.
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