How does the work of Fritz Haber ‘father of chemical warfare’ still resonate today?


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09 March 2022

The use of poison gas during the First World War is one of the grimmest aspects to come out of that conflict, although its creation had so many spins-off in terms of the effects that rippled through the world – and still resonate today – after its creation by German scientist Fritz Haber.

Initially, Haber thought of his new weapon as almost ‘humane’ in that he believed that its single use would simply end the war in one operation and thus, ultimately, save countless lives in the longer term as well as winning the war for Germany.

As we now know, his predictions were tragically wrong and gas as a weapon became widely used by all sides in the conflict. As such, he became reviled as the ‘father of chemical warfare’ and his scientist wife, revulsed by his creation, shot herself with her husband’s service revolver.

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How the story evolved after the First World War, and still has resonance today, is laid out in an intriguing feature article by Dr Kit Chapman who explains that Haber, a Jew, faced being ostracised when the Nazi party came to power and fled Germany. Ultimately, and ironically, a derivative of Haber’s poisons was then developed as ‘Zyklon-B’, the gas used in the death camps during the Holocaust. 

Incredibly, a study of the after-effects of gas poisoning also led to the discovery of chemotherapy treatment for cancer, while other developments of the work by Haber and his team led onto work on nuclear fission and atomic weapons. Truly, Haber’s devilish creation during the First World War still has an impact today, in the 21st Century.

An absolutely fascinating and yet chilling read.