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Haber, Fritz - SCIENCE AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR (1914–18)

ammonia gas led warfare

[hah ber] (1868–1934) German physical chemist: devised nitrogen ‘fixation’ process.

Haber’s father was a dye manufacturer and so he studied organic chemistry to prepare him for the family firm. However, physical chemistry interested him more, and he worked on flames and on electrochemistry. By 1911 he was well known and was made director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry at Berlin–Dahlem. From about 1900 he worked on the problem of ammonia synthesis had shown that, if the world continued to rely on Chilean nitrate deposits to provide nitrogenous fertilizer for agriculture, famine was inevitable. Haber solved the problem by 1908, showing that nitrogen from air could be used to make ammonia; the reaction could be used at c .400°C under pressure with a modified iron catalyst. With C Bosch (1874–1940) to develop the process to an industrial scale, production was established by 1913; the Haber–Bosch process made about 10 8 tonnes of ammonia annually by the 1980s. About 80% of this is used to make fertilizers. In the First World War it also solved the problem of making explosives for Germany, since nitric acid (essential for their production) can be made by oxidizing ammonia. Haber was also in scientific control of Germany’s chemical warfare and devised gas masks and other defence against the Allies’ gas warfare. A Nobel Prize was awarded to him in 1918 for the ammonia synthesis.

In 1933 he resigned his post and emigrated in protest against anti-Semitism, but he did not re-settle well and worked only briefly in Cambridge. He died while on his way to a post in Israel.



This conflict embraced more science than any previous war. All pre-atomic explosives are based on nitrates, which at that time were largely derived from natural deposits of caliche (NaNO3 ) from Chile, which would have been denied to Germany and the other powers at war with Britain. However, and BOSCH designed a plant which began to produce synthetic ammonia in Ludwigshafen in 1913, from air and water. The ammonia could then be oxidized to nitric acid and hence nitrate supply was assured.

Chemical warfare began with the use of chlorine (Cl2 ) by Germany in 1915; later in 1915 phosgene (COCl2 ) was used as well and by 1917 mustard gas S(CH2 CH2Cl) 2 was the shell-filling favoured by both sides. Haber in Germany and W J Pope (1870–1939) in England were key figures.

Advances in aircraft design and theory owe much to and H Glauert (1892–1934). Improved petrol engines made the tank effective from 1917. Sound-ranging to locate gun positions was developed by and sonar to detect submarines by . Radio communications were used in war for the first time, as was blood transfusion against wound shock, immunization against typhoid, paratyphoid and enteric fever, and tetanus antitoxin after wounding; led motorized X-ray units to set bones and locate fragments in wounds.

For the first time, war was dominated by trench warfare, rendered near-static by the combination of artillery, machine guns and barbed wire. Repeated attempts to introduce mobility led to the tank, but it was air operations that proved decisive in the land battles of 1918.

The blockade of Britain by German submarines, and shortage of agricultural manpower everywhere in Europe, led to poor levels of nutrition, which in turn exposed the population to infection by tuberculosis and notably to the world pandemic of influenza in 1918–19.

Much work on nutrition before and during the war focused on the calorific value of diet and its content in terms of fat, protein and carbohydrate. In 1920 a British ministry revealed that a large proportion of young men called up in the war were unfit, but it was after 1930 before malnutrition was recognized as a major factor in this; one result was improved nutrition during the Second World War (1939–45).

Another curious delay resulted from the ‘30-year rule’ that kept the medical reports on mustard gas victims secret from 1916 until 1946. It was then revealed that one effect of the gas was to reduce the white cell count of the blood, and this knowledge led to the use of ‘nitrogen mustard’ as a valuable treatment for leukaemia, a malignant disease characterized by progressive overproduction of a type of white cell.


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over 5 years ago

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