Clara Immerwahr: A Tragic Heroine of Science

Do you know Fritz Haber?

I am sure you must have heard about him. A major portion of humankind would not been able to survive without this man’s discovery. Half of the nitrogen atoms in today’s human body are because of this man.

You must be thinking, what this guy is talking about?

I am talking about the Haber-Bosch process, discovered by Fritz Haber which enabled to fix nitrogen from the air with hydrogen and thereby transform it to a form (ammonia), which could be metabolized by plants.

This process allowed people to mass produce plant fertilizers due to production of ammonia and thus farmers are able to grow more food to support a large population of 7.7 billion people of the world. Imagine if there was no ammonia, how we could supply food for this population. That’s why Haber’s invention is thought of as ‘bread from air’.

No wonder, Fritz Haber was awarded Nobel Prize in the year 1930. However, when he received the prestigious Nobel prize, many scientists including renowned physicist Ernest Rutherford refused to shake hand with Haber.

Why would people refuse to shake hand with a person who has given us ‘bread from air’?

Strange isn’t it.

It is indeed strange until you know the story of ‘Clara Immerwahr‘- wife of Fritz Haber.

I shouldn’t have introduced her as the wife of Fritz Haber. It’s unfair. Her own glory is enough that she doesn’t have to hide behind Fritz Haber’s shadow. Unfortunately, still today she remains as a hidden figure or known as Fritz Haber’s wife to most people who know her.

In the year 2016, when I was doing my post graduation I first read about ‘Clara Immerwahr‘ in a science magazine. I was so inspired by her story that I wrote a mail to the editor of that magazine. Fortunately, the editor published my reaction in that magazine. This was my reaction-

And today it gives me immense pleasure to write about this incredible woman.

So, who was Clara Immerwahr’ except Fritz Haber’s wife?

Born on 21st June 21, 1870, in Germany near Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) Clara Immerwahr grew up in a well-cultured and liberal Jewish family with her three siblings. She was youngest among all. Her father was a trained chemist but after his startup failure he moved to polkendorff (now in Poland), where is innovative spirit and farming skills made him wealthy. Due to the unavailibility of schools for girls, Clara had to study under a private tutor in her childhood.

Every winter Clara used to spend with her grandmother along with her siblings in Breslau. During that time her grandmother decided to admit Clara and her siblings to a school in Breslau. It was decided that winters they will study at school and the rest of the time when in Polkendorff, they will study under private tutors.

While two of her elder sisters left school, her brother went further to Berlin for higher studies and ultimately earned a doctorate degree. Clara was very eager in studies, especially in natural science. Her brother’s achievement further motivated her to pursue higher education.

Clara’s mother died in 1990. Her father handed over the farm in Polendorff to Elli, her elder sister and moved to Breslau with Clara.

It was in Breslau, where during a dancing class Clara met Fritz Haber. Haber fell in love with Clara and proposed to her. However, Clara declined his offer as she wanted to be financially independent and pursue science as carrer. Such self-esteem and enthusiasm towards science tell a lot about ‘Clara Immerwahr’.

Fortunately, Clara’s father came to know about Miss Knittel, who was known as a widely traveled and a wise woman also ran a teachers seminary. Clara had been admitted to that school. Very soon miss Knittel identified Clara’s aptitude towards science and presented her a book named ‘Conversations On Chemistry‘. This book inspired Clara to pursue Chemistry as her specialization.

After completing her studies at seminary, Clara worked as a governess, giving private lessons as she had no option for higher studies. At that time Breslau University didn’t use to admit female students to study. She had to fight and go through a lot of struggle to get permission for taking the entrance exam, which would enable her to qualify for the university entrance exam. However, Nothing was able to stop Clara Immerwahr’s indomitable spirit.

 In 1898, Clara Immerwahr became the first woman in Germany to pass the difficult Verbandsexamen, a predoctoral qualifying examination designed to raise standards in the training of professional chemists.

On December 12, 1900, Clara got the doctorate degree in Physical Chemistry from the University of Breslau and became the first ever woman to be awarded a doctorate from a German University. Clara’s work concerns solution chemistry, one of the main preoccupations of Physical chemistry of the time, and revolves about the connections among the conductivity, solubility, degree of dissociation, electrochemical potential, and what was called electro-affinity. Her dissertation paper was on ‘study of solubility of metal salts’ conducted under Prof. Richard Abegg. She dedicated her paper to her ‘dear father’ as he inspired and supported her throughout her life.

The day she got her doctorate, she also took an oath that-

“never in speech or writing to teach anything that is contrary to my beliefs. To persue truth and to advance the dignity of science to the height which it deserves”

After working as laboratory assistant to Professor Abegg—at the highest rank attainable by women—Clara Immerwahr worked briefly as a researcher in Clausthal and gave lectures on “Physics and Chemistry in the Household” at various women’s organizations and institutes. In spite of her efforts, she failed to manage a permanent job anywhere in male dominated circles of that time. This was frustrating her.

In April 1901 Clara and Fritz Haber met again. By that time Haber gained respect and recognition due to his work on electrochemistry, thermodynamics and especially as the inventor of large scale synthesis of ammonia. In 1898 he had been appointed as professor at the Technological University in Karlsruhe. Haber was known for his ambitious and incorrigible workaholic character.

They got married in August 1901 and settled in Karlsruhe. Initially, Clara thought she could manage her marriage and career. However, her ambitious husband’s demands kept her busy in making dinner for guests of Fritz Haber. She had hardly any time for herself. To this was added a difficult pregnancy and the birth on June 1, 1902, of a sickly son, Hermann.

Realizing the fact that working in a research laboratory becoming difficult Clara decided to devote her time in writing books. Haber wanted to publish his lectures on ‘thermodynamics’ in the form of a textbook. Clara collaborated with her husband in his research, especially in writing the textbook.

When the book was published in 1905, Haber dedicated the book to Clara as “his beloved wife Mrs. Clara Haber, Ph.D., with thanks for quite collaboration. However, nowhere Haber mentioned Clara as a co-writer of the book.

Clara continued to give lectures to women. She was infuriated to find that people assumed the lectures had been written by her husband. Clara’s life was becoming miserable day by day. She was going through depression at that phase.

Meanwhile, Fritz Haber’s career flourished. In his thermodynamics book, he had stated how to prepare ammonia industrially using Iron catalyst. In 1908, BASF (a chemical company) appointed him for ammonia preparation. The company started commercial production of ammonia using Haber’s principle. This made him renowned as well as rich.

In 1911 he was appointed the head of the recently founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of physical chemistry and electrochemistry in Berlin. Despite having hostility towards Jews, highly talented Jews could still rise to the top of their professionals. Although their colleagues and fellow citizens regarded them not as fully German. Certain discriminations were still there.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 gave Haber an opportunity to prove his patriotism. Soon he concentrated all his efforts on developing poison and other gases for war. In early 1915, he suggested a simple idea to release highly toxic chlorine gas so that it would drift across to the enemy trenches, where it would kill and disable without an artillery bombardment.

Horrified by Haber’s work, Clara came out open to oppose his work.
Condemning this as “perversion of the ideals of science” as “a sign of barbarity. Clara’s couldn’t forget the oath she took during her doctorate ceremony. She pleaded several times with her husband to cease work on gas warfare. But alas, Haber was not ready to listen to her. Moreover, he accused her in public of making statements treasonous to the Fatherland.

Finally, the first poison gas attack took place on April 22, 1915, on the Western front in the Ypres sector of Belgium. Of the seven thousand casualties that day, more than five thousand died. Countless additional attacks resulted in the deaths of at least a hundred thousand soldiers on both sides.

Haber was promoted to the rank of captain. Returning in triumph from the front to their home in the elegant Berlin suburb of Dahlem, he attended a party in his honor on May 2, the night before he was due to go to the eastern front to supervise a gas attack.

That night the couple quarreled. Their marriage was anyway going through a crisis. Haber was seldom at home. His ambitions kept him busy with his colleagues. He went on frequent trips with his colleagues and even had affairs with other women.


In a letter to her friend Professor Abegg Clara wrote-

“What Fritz [Haber] has gained during these last eight years, I have lost, and what’s left of me, fills me with the deepest dissatisfaction. “

Her inability to prevent her husband from involving in World War I chemical warfare, along with this, the death of two of her closest friend Richard Abegg (his supervisor) and Otto Sackur filled her with deep grief. On 2nd May 1915 when her husband was celebrating the killing of thousands of soldiers by his poisonous gas, Clara Immerwahr took her husband’s pistol out to the garden and shot herself.

That’s how the life of a promising scientist and an incredible woman ended. In the biography of Clara Immerwahr, Gerit von Leitner stated that- Clara was destroyed – as both a person and a scientist – by her oppressive and opportunistic husband’.

Fortunately, people started realizing Clara Immerwahr’s legacy in the 1970s. Historians and activists began to investigate the remarkable woman who ended her life in protest against the desecration of science. A biography on her had been written by Gerit von Leitner. In 1991 the German Section of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War awarded its most prestigious award, the Clara Immerwahr Prize. Since November 2000 the University of Dortmund has a mentoring project for women students which is named for her.

I addressed her as a promising scientist because I think she never got the chance to bloom, to show her potential as a science enthusiast. She remains a hidden figure in the shadow of Fritz Haber. She is probably the first woman who sacrificed her life for the misuse of science. Clara Immerwahr always remained faithful towards science and also to her name ‘Immerwahr’ which means-always true

Let us pay our homage to such an incredible soul.

Clara Immerwahr

What do you think about her? Have you heard about her before?

Source:

  1. Clara Immerwahr: Life, Work and Legacy
  2. Clara Immerwahr-Encyclopedia
  3. One hundred year of chemical warfare

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