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The story of Clara Immerwaher

For today's +ScienceSunday post, I would like to bring to your attention the heart-breakingly tragic story of Clara Immerwaher.

Immerwaher was a chemist, and also the first woman to earn a Ph.D from the prestigious University of Breslau (now Wrocław). But unlike her (often-cited) contemporary Marie Curie, Immerwaher had the misfortune to marry Fritz Haber, who was definitely not an open-minded man like Pierre Curie was.

Fritz Haber is known for his contradictory contributions to society; on the one hand he is responsible for the Haber process by which ammonia is synthesized with applications in fertilizer production and is essential to our agriculture (he won the Nobel prize for this in 1918); on the other hand the scientists at his institute developed the gas Zyklon A which the Nazis 'refined' into the notorious Zyklon B used in the concentration camp gas chambers. He was also responsible for the development of other chlorine-based gases, famously used in the attack against the French in Ypres. Haber also developed Haber's Rule, a horrific method to quantify the relationship between gas concentration, exposure time and death-rate. One can only imagine what gathering data for this involved.

Haber's views on women were no better than his views on gas warfare. According to a historian, Immerwaher "was never out of apron", and she once confided to a friend about her subservient role; "It has always been my attitude that a life has only been worth living if one has made full use of all one's abilities and tried to live out every kind of experience human life has to offer. It was under that impulse, among other things, that I decided to get married at that time... The life I got from it was very brief...and the main reasons for that was Fritz's oppressive way of putting himself first in our home and marriage, so that a less ruthlessly self-assertive personality was simply destroyed". She ended up translating his manuscripts into English and providing technical support on his nitrogen projects, her own dreams and potential ignored and forgotten, although she drew the line at helping him with his poison gas work.

Immerwaher was actually horrified with Haber's growing obsession with the development of poison gas. She confronted him numerous times but her concerns fell on deaf ears. On May 2nd 1915, she quarreled violently with Haber when she found out that he had come home for just the night and was leaving again in the morning to direct more poison gas attacks on the eastern front. In the early hours of the morning, Immerwaher walked into the garden with Haber's army pistol and shot herself in the chest. Haber of course did not let this inconvenience him, and left as planned the next morning without even making any funeral arrangements.

When I first read this story, I was struck by how often we focus on the positive happy stories like Marie Curie's and how the story of someone like Clara Immerwaher remains largely forgotten. She appeared to have had a tremendous amount of potential, as evidenced by her being the first female to receive a Ph.D at the University of Breslau, an endeavor that is certainly not for the faint-hearted even now. One can only wonder at the 'might-have-beens' if she had not married Haber, or if Haber had been a different kind of person.

For #sciencesunday , curated by +Allison Sekuler and +Robby Bowles.
Rajini Rao's profile photoBuddhini Samarasinghe's profile photoKevin Clift's profile photoRich Hunte's profile photo
+Prabat parmal I don't understand what you mean in relation to the topic of this post, Clara Immerwaher. Care to elaborate? The STEM circle is still a work in progress (since it's actively curated it does involve us going through each profile manually to verify it). Patience :)

+Jun C Let me know what you think of the book if you read it :D
+Jun C no idea, I'm not on Prime. Amazon says its $9.99 for Kindle though, no mention of renting.
Jun C
+Buddhini Samarasinghe thanks! yah, i saw that... i was hoping you knew off the top of your head tho.. :) Will definitely get it soon though... someone at work was actually wondering what the history of the elements on the Periodic table was... and this book sounds great!
Thank you for this enlightening bio. I am sending it to my granddaughters as a warning about whom to marry.
+Charles Traupmann Yes! Sons need to be educated that behaving like this towards women is not good. Similarly, daughters need to be taught how to be more picky and not settle for the Habers of this world :)
You can also hear this story on Radiolab:

One small correction: Haber didn't invent Zyklon A- it was just developed at his institute by other scientists.

She was quite admirable for standing up for her principles at great cost. The world might be very different if more scientists were like her.
it really broke my heart,i admire that brave lady & also u for informing me
ugh. This photo seems old...where did you find it, cause its kind of freaking me out
+Niloufar Dabestani Thank you! I'm glad you liked reading it, despite the sadness of the subject matter. You should check out the +ScienceSunday page for good content like this, quite a few of us post every week for it :) Thank you for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts on this :)

+Katrina Everett Did you even read the story? She died in 1915. I hardly think they had digital SLRs or Photoshop back then for flattering portrait shots that would meet your approval.
Thank you for sharing.....I was not aware of this story
And this is a story?!? I should really pay more attention
If she had just picked another door, brilliant woman, terrible tragedy to have been stuck with him
+Katrina Everett It's not a fictional story, it's an account of Clara Immerwaher's life. And yes, you really should.

+Peter Kemp Yeah, I can't help wondering 'what-if' about it. And how many other women suffered a similar fate like this that we just don't know or hear's very sad.
+Keith Hair She did not help with the poison gas project. In fact she argued and fought with him about his continuing interest in the poison gas project. She merely assisted him on his other projects by working on translations, so I hardly think that is sufficient reason to be glad of her suicide or to pass judgment.
you might right> Guys have fallen for Bad girl too
It's all very well to make judgements from our lofty perspective, and it is a sad story, but I'm pretty sure that that kind of marriage was not that unusual back then. Also although with hindsight we look back st the whole poison gas episode as barbaric, I'm sure that it may well have been looked upon as doing no more than one's duty for the war effort. Germany may have been the first to use it, but nit exclusively. It was Total War remember, and the efficiency of the then modern weapons caused everyone to re-assess how this new type of warfare could be waged.
Not that I'm defending anyone in any way, but they were different times. 20,000 British casualties alone on the first day of the Battle of The Somme. I'm sure it would only be s matter of time before you'd begin to seek different ways to proceed as those casualty rates are unsustainable and I'm sure the German casualty rates were higher by that stage of the war.
Sorry about that. It is a unfortunate story, but I felt some historical perspective was needed.
She should have just left him. Killing herself was a pointless, empty act of rebellion.
+Rich Hunte Agreed. That is also the sad part about it - the fact that as you say, marriages such as this where the male dominance resulted in a brilliant woman having to resort to a subservient role ultimately ending in her suicide 'were not so unusual back then'. It shouldn't have been okay back then, and I'm glad that it's not considered okay now (in most places in the world).
A man like that would have already decided that a human life is worth nothing, not those of the enemy nor even of his wife.
She should have left him.
+Steve Withers and +Tim Luther Lewis - As +Rich Hunte pointed out, historical context from back then may have been such that she might not have seen leaving him as a viable option. Haber was a highly respected instrument of the war effort - maybe she just didn't see any other way out.
It seems that although she may have been intelligent and had potential, she failed to live up to it and chose the cowardly way out of a hard situation. Suicide shows a weak mind and lack of usefulness. While I'm sure Haber was a bastard and a terrible person, saying that being married to him caused her demise is a warped way of viewing this. If she didn't see any other way out I seriously doubt her overall stability and therefore explaining history's lack of remembrance.
Folks who think suicide is the sign of a weak mind.. honestly have no idea what they are talking about. The willpower required to see the process through, going against every grain built into a human being.. is enormous.
So the ability to pull a trigger and shoot oneself shows more resolve than coming up with a reasonable solution to a difficult problem? The whole idea that suicide is brave or somehow noble is idiotic and is another sign of a weak mind in itself. Overcoming adversity shows true willpower and strength. Getting drunk and putting one in your head is easily assomplished, and is achieved by idiots all the time.
well we all are right. William i get u and is true, but let's look at her action through a positive stand point.. what lead her to choosing suicide? was suicide the best thing to do? i have lots of questions ringing my head... well a Sad story
I don't think anyone here is saying that suicide is brave or noble. But it's not cowardly or ignoble either. Why do we have to pass judgment at all? I think the key point would be to say that it's sad that she felt she had no other choice, and try to work towards a world where people do not feel like they have no other option. No judging necessary.
Whats quite sad is the fact that even in this, so called, enlightened age people still see fit to judge others actions/decisions when those people are dealing with matters that we cannot really imagine.
See the story for what it is. Not as an exercise in judgement.
+Rich Hunte Great minds :P I love that despite all the judgment going on, some people at least seem capable of taking the story for what it is :) Thank you for that.
+Buddhini Samarasinghe it's says a lot that people are choosing to pass judgement instead of celebrating the journey society has made since then.
Thank you so much for sharing her story. We as women have seen over and over again through history the disregard of our obvious brilliance. It takes 10 months to create a life and less than one tenth of a second to destroy it. I just recently asked my three son's this questions:
If women where handling the resources of this world, do you think we would have hunger, war, homelessness or constant upheaval? Their reply was NO. Clara's story inspires me to never settle for less and live the life that I was created to live.
+Rich Hunte Well said. I still a couldn't help from wishing that she had turned that gun on Haber instead of herself.
This goes to show what happens when a good potential goes to waste,and what unfortunate harm can come of it.
+Dale Fishel without wishing to invoke morality issues, and ignoring the "rights & wrongs" of what each of them did, is suicide a greater "crime" than murder? I think the judicial penalties for each can go some way to providing society's answer to that question. And that's today's society, nevermind the society of nearly a century ago!
I have been prompted to download the book The Disappearing Spoon. Don't know when I'll get round to reading it though as my Kindle already has a long list of books on it....
+Kevin Clift oooh thank you! That was a great programme, I really enjoyed listening to that - thanks very much for posting the link here.
I'm gratified, for some reason even though they'll watch a video, people are reluctant to listen!
+Kevin Clift Radio doesn't always have the same visual impact as video, perhaps that is why. Since moving to the US and listening to the absolute rubbish on the radio daily, I finally discovered the frequency for the NPR station (BBC4 equivalent, you could say). I now have a greater appreciation for radio programmes :)
Take a look at BBC Radio 4 (and 3 if you like classical). Plenty of decent science and in podcast form. Keeps me sane in the US.
I tried to listen via my phone on my way to work this morning, but it wouldn't work. :-(
After reading the blurb, I can't help but be moved by the tragic irony of the fact that he was Jewish!
+Kevin Clift my phone is Android, and I'd already checked with my iPlayer app. Thanks all the same.
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