122. Clara? Mad, totally mad.

By Peter Fraenkel

“Clara?  Mad! Totally mad.” So said my grandmother, Sophie, forcefully.  She was referring to Clara Immerwahr, the wife of her uncle Fritz. I doubt Grandmother had ever met Clara but she will certainly have known Clara’s husband and have admired him greatly: he was Fritz Haber, a leading scientist of his time and a winner of the Nobel Prize. But today there are thousands, especially in Germany, with very different opinions of Clara.

Her admirers stem from two groups: feminists and pacifists.

Grandmother justified her scathing opinion: “That woman? She committed suicide with her own husband’s service revolver!  And yet he was a world-famous scientist – and winner of the Nobel Prize!”

It was said of Haber – somewhat fancifully – that he had ‘turned air into bread’. It is, however, true that the Haber-Bosch process of extracting nitrogen from air is the basis of modern fertilisers and without such fertilizers the earth could not feed its growing population.

Of Clara it is said she was the first woman ever to get a doctorate. The evidence for that is not entirely convincing but she was, without doubt, the first woman to get a doctorate in chemistry. The year was 1910 and her grade was magna cum laude. She had managed this despite obstacles in her path: Women were not permitted to attend lectures at her University, at Breslau. Nor were they accepted at other universities. However, a sympathetic male student had lent her his lecture-notes.  This enabled her to pass her exams and to be awarded a doctoratewithout having been able to attend a single lecture. A remarkable achievement!

There are many today who would dispute Grandmother’s scathing opinion of Clara, especially in Germany. There she is celebrated twice over: As a pioneer of women’s rights and also, as a pacifist.

Clara committed suicide the morning after the first poison gas attack of WWI. It was her husband, Fritz Haber, who had developed the poison gas and he had, himself, supervised the attack from forward trenches of the German army.  He has gone there to measure wind direction and wind speed before ordering the release of the gas from cylinders. He was immediately promoted captain!

A friend of Clara’s quoted her as saying that she regarded her husband’s activities “a perversion of science”.

After the end of WWI, the ever-inventive Fritz devised a scheme to liberate Germany from the crippling burden of reparations imposed under the Treaty of Versailles. He proposed stationing a factory ship off South America, near the mouth of the River Amazon, to retrieve gold. The river had washed grains of gold from inland deposits into the ocean. The initial tests did indeed retrieve gold but not in quantities sufficient to make his project economically viable.  Haber suffered a nervous breakdown!  Neither the many killed in his poison gas attacks nor his wife’s suicide had driven him to such straits!

A second reason for Clara’s suicide was advanced some years later by one of their domestic servants: He claimed Clara had found her husband in bed with another woman.

However, the timing of her suicide – the very morning after the first use of poison gas in warfare – make this appear a more convincing reason for her suicide.

Haber described succinctly what he stood for: “In peace – humanity. In war – the fatherland.”

It is not an attitude that his wife – nor many others – could accept.