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.
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