Tuesday 25 February 2014

Clara Immerwahr PhD

One of my students gave me a copy of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein edited by Alice Calaprice.  It was, of course, nice to get a present but a little weird to get one for such a small service: I am currently lending out my small store of science-light books to any student who expresses an interest in material beyond the immediate experiment.  Einstein is often good for a quip although, in the winner-takes-all Harry-Potter world we live in, he gets a far greater share of attention than he deserves; as does Stephen Hawking.  I was struck by Einstein's assessment of Werner "Uncertainty" Heisenberg:
"Professor Heisenberg was here, a German.  He was an important Nazi (ein grosser Nazi). 
He is a great physicist but not a very pleasant man.
I've mentioned some deeply creepy people who are nevertheless successful scientists.  The tag I used for that post "Nobody died, but . . ." suggested that it could have been worse. For Clara Immerwahr it was.

She was an extra-ordinary woman, she was born in 1870 just outside of Breslau/Wrocław in Central Europe the daughter of a dabbler in chemistry and successful farmer who had married his cousin.  Young Clara was exposed to chemistry by one of her high-school teachers and she pushed to get the chance to progress her scientific career beyond some lady-like book-learning.  She was finally allowed to audit classes at the University of Breslau when she was 25.  She was the first woman in Germany to pass the fiendishly hard Verbandsexamen to progress to the PhD program, and went on to get her doctorate with a study of metal salt solubilities: Beiträge zur Löslichkeitsbestimmung schwerlöslicher Salze des Quecksilbers, Kupfers, Bleis, Cadmiums und Zinks. Extra euro-points if you can translate all five elements into their Spanish, Greek or Russian equivalents.

It wasn't until she had beaten the system in this way that she felt able to get married, which she did the following year in 1901. The intervening period pursuing a desultory career giving lectures on "Physics and Chemistry in the Household", which people assumed were written by her husband, didn't help her self-esteem either, I suspect.   Her new husband was Fritz Haber, who like her was a converso; cristão-novo; cristiano nuevo; cristià nou, or would have been if they'd been born in Iberia as Muslims rather than as Central European Jews who converted to Lutheranism. That wouldn't have saved them from boarding the cattle-waggons if they had survived into WWII, or probably made much difference to their neighbours' casually anti-semitic assessment of them.

Her hsuband's career really took off, not least because she was there as an invisible extra cylinder to his engine, proofing and criticising his manuscripts and translating his books into English. In the rigid, Prussian, institutionally anti-semitic world he lived in, Haber felt that if he out-Germanned the Germans they'd finally accept him.  He was an enthusiastic advocate of chemical warfare who saw great potential in chlorine as a weapon.  Clara contrariwise saw it as a travesty of science and a barbarity and was not shy of saying so in public.  Haber was present taking notes at the Front when the first gas-shells were lobbed across into the British trenches near Ypres on 22 April 1915.  He returned home to the swanky Berlin suburb of Dahlem for a bit of a celebratory party en route for the Eastern Front where he planned to mete out the same treatment on the Russians.  After an argument, Clara lifted his service revolver and, in the small hours of 2nd May, went out into the garden and shot herself in the chest.  Her son, then aged 13, was the only one in the household to heard the shot and responded, but he was much too late.  Haber left for the Front on schedule the next day leaving the boy and the servants to clean up and bury his wife.

It's easy to write this story in Black and White with Fritz as a barely human species of monster and Clara as a totally modern anti-war protester. When he was awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1918 (for his invention of an economic method for making ammonia) fellow-Nobel Ernest Rutherford took the high moral ground and refused to shake Haber's hand. But if Haber had done the chlorine attack as a solo run, even his contemporaries would have called him a mad-man and a terrorist. There was a whole military-political infrastructure that was condoning, facilitating and implementing these new weapons. There were arguments at the time about whether such weapons were more humane than those which ripped men's limbs asunder and dropped the still struggling remains in a muddy, bloody soup of Clostridium perfringens and worse.  Nazi Germany, which we are still taught to believe was the epitome of evil, had a much cleaner record on weapons of mass-destruction than either the Germany of Kaiser Bill or the British in WWI or the Roosevelt/Truman administration of the USA in WWII.

I feel more confident about the outstanding intellectual ability of Clara Immerwahr/Haber, her competence as a chemist and her determination not to be dismissed a cipher because she had two X chromosomes. She was a pioneer who made it easier for women to contribute to, and progress in, science.  It must have been ghastly for her to have been compromised and betrayed by the man she once loved.  I hope and expect that she was as effective with a pistol as she was with retorts and test-tubes and that exited her made-wretched life with determination and dispatch.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing story, and so brave and sad a woman. Yes indeed, we are compelled by the Powers-That-Be to only look in one direction when examining corrupted power ie Nazi Germany.